Why the decision on whether or not to play high school sports this fall is such a difficult one

Many factors are in play
Posted at 5:46 PM, Aug 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-11 17:46:50-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Gov. Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted were asked on Tuesday about high school fall sports, and they punted. DeWine said they'll have more to say about fall sports "shortly," which probably means at Thursday's scheduled press conference. In all fairness, it's a tough question, and it may not be a coincidence that the state's top two executives discussed the needs of students and schools on Tuesday before tackling sports.

From potentially long-lasting health issues to community spread to the social and educational impact of kids not playing sports, school officials, coaches, health experts and state officials have a lot to consider as they think about sports in a totally new light, against the backdrop of a pandemic.

The social need for sports

On Monday, Husted sent a tweet from his personal account confirming his stance that having a fall sports season is important for the well-being of youth in Ohio.

Husted cited health, academic success and overall livelihood as factors that student-athletes benefit from. When it comes to academic success, studies have shown a link between students doing well in school and participating in sports.

Results from multiple studies indicate that participation in high school sports was positively related with higher grades, higher graduation rates and higher scores on tests and state assessments for athletes compared to non-athletes. A study conducted in Kansas between 2008 and 2009 showed that high school student-athletes were more likely to have better grades, more likely to graduate and less likely to drop out than their peers who did not participate in sports.

When it comes to mental health, one study showed that individuals who experienced adverse childhood experiences in their youth were less likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety than those who did not participate in sports.

DeWine has said that there is a good argument to have sports, one major reason being sports inherently have a discipline to them, making it more likely student-athletes would be able to successfully follow guidelines and protocols issued to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

"Part of that discipline this year will be different than the normal discipline. Part of the discipline this year will have to be being safe," DeWine said. "And I think our coaches, those who are assisting, those who are working with our young people—whether in sports or whether in drama or whatever they’re in—they are role models, and it’s not only important what these young people do in school, what they do in practice, but what they do the rest of the day."

The risks of having sports

It’s clear sports can have a positive impact on students, but despite the social and physical benefits sports provide, a big concern surrounding having sporting events during the COVID-19 pandemic is the still unknown long-term effects the virus has on individuals, including young people.

On Tuesday, DeWine announced that the percentage of COVID-19 cases in young people has increased substantially from the start of the pandemic. In March, 2.4% of cases were 19 years old or younger. Now, in August, 12.8% of cases are 19 or younger.

COVID-19 age percentages

Dr. John Barnard, Chief of Pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, said during the state's COVID-19 briefing Tuesday that older teenagers around the age of 17 are testing positive more than any other aged children, attributing that to the fact they are often able to drive and are socially more active than younger children.

According to ESPN, myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, has been found in at least five Big Ten Conference athletes and among several other athletes in other conferences.

Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, 27, ended his season early after developing myocarditis after recovering from COVID-19 before the season started. Rodriguez’s doctors told him that 10% to 20% of people who have had COVID-19 also have been diagnosed with myocarditis, according to the Associated Press.

John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, said that multi-system inflammatory syndrome has been noted in children who tested positive for COVID-19. Inflammation of the skin, joints, kidneys, lungs and heart have been found in children with the virus.

Dr. Barnard said that Ohio has seen some cases of the multi-system inflammatory syndrome, 13 total at the children's hospitals he represents, which is far fewer than hot spots around the country such as New York and Miami.

Much is still unknown about how COVID-19 affects children and teens, which is one reason why deciding how high school sports can resume has proven difficult. It’s not just the health risks to the student-athletes that have to be considered when making a decision regarding high school sporting events.

Competing against other schools means traveling and close interaction between different communities, especially in contact sports such as football. While a student-athlete who contracts COVID-19 might fare just fine, their parents, grandparents or coaches might not.

Community spread

Counties across Northeast Ohio have reported high rates of community spread of COVID-19, which is a worry for school vs. school competition in fall sports this season.

In Summit County, where health officials recently recommended that fall sports be postponed, 93% of COVID-19 cases have been linked back to non-congregate settings and have been determined to be from community spread.

Summit County Public Health noted that 271 children and teens 19 years old or younger have tested positive for COVID-19 in the county and said an area of concern is the limited testing availability for children under the age of 18.

Over the last two weeks, Summit County has reported 117 cases per 100,000, two times over the threshold designated by the Ohio Department of Health as an indicator of high COVID-19 transmission. The county was between orange Level 2 and red Level 3 on the state’s Public Health Advisory System throughout the month of July.

In Cuyahoga County, more than 77% of COVID-19 cases between July 24 and July 30 were traced back to community spread. The percentage dropped to under 42% between July 31 and Aug. 6.

The Cuyahoga County Board of Health issued the following recommendation for fall sports, calling for a delay:

CCBH is recommending that fall sports and extracurricular activities are delayed until the remote learning phase recommendation by this office is lifted.

For schools that decide to continue sports and extracurricular activities, we recommend that contact sports are suspended given the current levels of local transmission and the fact that we do not have any surveillance data indicating how COVID-19 will react in a school environment.

To date, we have responded to outbreaks associated with both contact and non-contact sports. Additionally, some extracurricular activities that involve singing and the use of some musical instruments may increase the risk of spread, based on the nature of the activity created by respiratory or airborne droplets.

While many rural counties with lower populations have less community spread than counties like Summit and Cuyahoga, the concern of community spread at sporting events between athletes from neighboring communities still remains.

OHSAA’s plan for football

A plan voted on by the OHSAA Board of Directors and approved by a 9-0 vote on how football would be played in Ohio, which is dependent on a decision from DeWine, outlined a shortened season and modified playoff system.

If allowed, Ohio’s high school football season will consist of a six-game regular season beginning on Aug. 24 and will make all teams eligible for the playoffs, beginning on Oct. 9.

Since the playoffs are scheduled in October, schools that put their football seasons on hold due to COVID-19 concerns would be able to begin their season in September and compete in the playoffs, the OHSAA said.

Rather than use the computer ratings system, coaches in each region would seed all the playoff teams to form a bracket, similar to other OHSAA sports. The higher seeded teams would then host the games in each round of the semifinals and possible finals, according to the OSHAA’s plan.

There has yet to be a decision made about spectators, but OHSAA said it believes parents should be permitted to attend games.

RELATED: OHSAA outlines plan for reduced football season, new playoff system pending Gov. DeWine's approval

The state has not taken the decision on high school fall sports lightly. It is an area of constant observation and discussion when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While a decision regarding high school fall sports has not been made yet, the COVID-19 pandemic is an ever-changing situation.

Despite not making a decision, DeWine seemed hopeful on Tuesday that high school sports in Ohio will have a chance.

"You can't make these decisions in a vacuum. Parents can't, schools can't, our administration can't," DeWine said. "I think you have to look at what other things that student would be doing, what discipline can be gained by being in a sport—and that's what of the things we usually associate with sports—there's a discipline, a self-discipline, discipline for the team. And part of that discipline this year for team that play is going to be, 'Let's have a season, let's have a full season.'"

After DeWine said last week that announcements would be made this week about professional, college and high school sports in Ohio, the most-watched Ohio sports event of the day will likely be the governor's news conference Thursday at 2 p.m., which, by the way, you can watch on our many digital platforms.