CASA GRANDE — About 115 days remain before the first high school football game is to be played in Arizona somewhere near Aug. 21.
Although schedules have not been released and the Aug. 21 date is just a guess, it’s unclear what the prep sports landscape will look like when the season begins.
Athletic directors are discussing that issue as they begin to plan fall sports. No one has clear answers, as nobody knows what to expect in a post-COVID-19 pandemic world.
“I’m looking at what the pro and the college teams do,” Casa Grande Union athletic director Randy Robbins said. “Once we see what they are going to do, then high schools will follow a little bit of that. I can’t see us putting high school kids before college or pros.”
The NFL and NCAA don’t have contingency plans in place if their seasons can’t go on as scheduled come September. The New York Post reported about the possibility that the NFL season could be delayed and the Super Bowl could be pushed back as late as the end of February, but the NFL has not made any official announcement.
As states look to start to reopen, the attention will eventually turn to sports and how to bring them back. There have been proposals where Major League Baseball would play its games without fans in the stands, and the NBA and NHL have also looked at that possibility.
But what about high school sports?
Some state leaders don’t foresee any large gatherings for sometime. That means no fans in the stands.
Robbins said unlike the NFL and college, where large TV money is at stake and they could possibly get by without having fans in the stands, that’s not the case with high school sports.
“High school we don’t have TV contracts. We can’t function without those gate receipts,” he said. “We can’t afford it. We can’t pay for football without gate receipts; it will be very tough. NFL and college can get by without fans, that can’t happen in the high school ranks.
“Unless somebody is going to pay for some of those costs. It costs money to run a football game.”
Poston Butte AD Noel Nafziger said no matter the number of fans in the stands, safety has to be the top priority.
“You want it to be safe for everyone regardless if you have 15,000 people or 200 people,” he said. “That’s the first priority is the safety of our athletes.”
The question of whether fans will be allowed to attend high school football games in the fall isn’t the only one on the table.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association requires all athletes to get a physical before the start of the season. Robbins discussed the possibility of the AIA also requiring a COVID-19 test.
“I’m looking at it from a health point of view,” he said.
Robbins added the cost for an athlete to get a physical is about $25, but he’s not sure about the potential cost of a COVID-19 test.
“What is that COVID-19 test going to cost (a player’s family)?” he said. “There are so many unknowns that I have. Even if [the AIA] makes that determination ... that is a big question and a big unknown that I have right now.”
Then there’s the question about in-season testing. A player might test negative for COVID-19 in July before the start of practice, but what happens if that player contracts the virus either a week, month or two months down the road?
Perhaps regular COVID-19 testing is implemented the same way that coaches conduct grade checks to see if a player is academically eligible.
“Those are big questions that are probably going to be asked,” Robbins said. “We live in a world of liability.”
Nafziger said teams have to find ways to prepare, regardless of when sports officially return.
“It’s uncharted territory for everybody,” he said. “We have a lot of programs that work a lot in the summer ... and that goes a long ways to building a program and a team. We are working on plans to be prepared if we are able to or if we are not.”
Robbins has been meeting with regional athletic directors and getting ready for the fall.
He said the finalizing of the football schedules has been put on hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit that was filed by Phoenix Northwest Christian, Queen Creek Benjamin Franklin and Eagar Round Valley against the AIA over the schools’ conference placement. The case is expected to be heard in court next week.
Robbins added that with the spring sports season canceled, the AIA is in offseason mode for every sport.
“We are still planning for offseason for basketball leagues for the summer. We are still planning for that and attend those if we can attend them if we get the OK,” he said. “We still have to plan for it. If it doesn’t work, then we will nix it and move on.
“I think it’s what Governor (Doug) Ducey comes up with, and then we will go from there. But I think there is so many unknowns right now.”
For Robbins, who played college football for the University of Arizona then moved on to the Denver Broncos in the 1980s and early 1990s, which included three Super Bowl trips, some of those unknowns could be answered as early as June.
“If colleges are not out there practicing or [at least] being able to practice and do anything in June, I could see them pushing the season back,” he said.
Robbins added that practice and training is critical for college players otherwise it could lead to more injuries in his opinion.
“I think everything is on the table,” he said. “With this situation everything is on the table.”