The Central Section Football Coaches Association held a press conference outside Bullard High School in Fresno Wednesday, January 20. The association stated they support the idea of the CIF gaining clearance from the California Department of Public Health to move sports up in tier levels, should a decrease in COVID-19 cases allow for a safe return of sports.
The desired clearance would push sports like football and volleyball, two fall sports allowed only under the “Orange” tier level (determined by a county’s COVID-19 positivity rate), to the less-restrictive “Red” tier.
The tiered system of youth sports was introduced by the CA Department of Public Health on December 14, and the calls for a tier change have been heard from football coaches not only locally, but statewide. The CSFCA was created as a local chapter of the state-level Golden State Football Coaches Association, which has advocated for the return of football by releasing several pieces of scientific data supporting the idea.
Now the CSFCA is using this statewide momentum to ask the CA Department of Public Health and CIF to “let them play”, the rallying cry popular among the high school community during the past week.
“This started out as coaches on text messages sharing our stories,” said Bullard High head football coach Don Arax. “So as we talked more and more about what was going on, we decided that we needed to be an advocacy group for our students and programs.”
Arax went on to address the mental health he’s seen from student-athletes, stating the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of a football season has “taken a severe psychological toll on our kids.” He also noted the “disproportionate effect” on lower-income families, who can’t afford to participate in club sports or compete in other states like some athletes have done during the pandemic.
“If anyone has this idea that we are keeping kids safe by shutting down, then we have to consider that a lot of kids are out there who are competing and the competition is pretty widespread,” Arax said.
One thing the CSFCA agreed to when it started, however, was that COVID-19 was a real danger and a return to play should only happen when the positivity rate declines. Yet what inspired the coaches’ call for action Wednesday was “the lack of coordination from the state, district, CIF and county health” in setting a clear path for high school sports to return.
“We are not sitting at the same table, and that’s just being honest,” Hoover head football coach Rustin Pickett said of coaches and their school districts. “We don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors, and then things get rolled out and we have to adhere by it.”
Don Arax knows that no communication between school districts and coaches can lead to a grim outcome.
“Because of the lack of coordination, [the CIF] is prepared to cancel sports in the next three weeks, which is basically when we run out of time, because there is this drop-dead date of April 17,” Arax warned.
April 17 is the last date that high school football can be played during the 2020-21 athletic year, according to Tuesday’s CIF Central Section sports calendar update. This date allows for the 2021 fall football season to begin as scheduled.
Arax opposes the idea of a fixed end date for high school football, explaining football could be played in late April, May or early June, depending on when COVID-19 cases decline. He and the other coaches are willing to delay the start of the next fall season to make a spring season happen.
The coaches revealed four potential spring scheduling scenarios for the Central Section. The first scenario has February 8-25 as the acclimation period, with a season running from February 26 to April 9 and three weeks of playoffs running from April 16-30. The second scenario has football players reporting to practice February 22 to March 11, then playing a season from March 12 to April 16 and two weeks of playoffs from April 23-30.
The third scenario includes practice from March 15 to April 1, before playing a season from April 2-30 and playoffs from May 7-14. The fourth scenario has practice from April 12-29, followed by a season from April 30 to May 28, with June 4 and June 11 as playoff dates.
The coaches would need the Central Section to eliminate the end date of April 17 for football and re-allow section playoffs in order for these scenarios to be feasible.
Another incentive for coaches to drop football’s end date is roster flexibility; a student-athlete who runs track and field and plays football may choose the former since it’s a “Purple” tier sport and therefore more likely to play. By dropping the end date, it allows the student-athlete to compete in both sports if football is played in May and June, but not during the same time or season according to CIF Central Section guidelines.
“We are deeply connected with coaches around the U.S. who have had to adhere by strenuous protocol to get a season in… I have talked to these coaches personally, we have talked with media platforms that want to stream games so that we can limit the amount of fans in the stands to ensure safety,” Pickett said. “Our parents signed district waivers to entrust us with their student-athletes, which we take very seriously in protecting and conducting our events in a safe manner.”
Financially, the schools do have something to gain from media platforms coming in to stream games, so having a football season won’t cause a total financial loss for schools. In addition, schools are operating with help from COVID-19 relief funds granted by the state government.
“We’re talking about paying officials basically and transporting kids on buses that are essentially not working, but are paid for,” Arax said.
Support for playing a spring football season is unanimous among the Central Section’s head coaches according to Arax: “I have not talked to one coach that disagrees with what we’re doing.” The CSFCA is exploring every option to play a season — including pulling away from the CIF’s season of sport according to Bylaw 504 in the CIF Constitution.
“Absolutely that’s an option that needs to be looked at… if kids are the number one priority, then we have to look at that,” Arax said. “These drop-dead dates, from our perspective, are ridiculous. We are in the middle of a pandemic, a one in a hundred year deal, so everything you’ve done goes out the window.”
“Coaches may get some heat for some of these things, but we got to stand up for our kids, and if what we’re doing is right, we can look ourselves in the mirror and say we did the right thing.”