Ivy League colleges canceled all fall sports Wednesday afternoon. Many saw it as the first domino to fall in what will eventually lead to no high school or college sports before the new year.
Moments after I heard the news, I drove past some baseball fields in Monmouth County and saw teams practicing.
A little while later, I drove past some soccer fields. The parking lot was packed. Parents stood along the sidelines. Multiple games were being played.
I’m sure the same scenario was being played out on fields around the state.
High school athletics are often at odds with club and youth sports.
That conflict might never be more apparent than it is now.
A very real question is what will the COVID-19 pandemic mean for the future of the U.S. model of school-based sports?
This is not a debate over whether sports should currently be played. Gov. Phil Murphy delayed the opening of indoor dining last week. This week, he mandated the wearing of masks — with few exceptions — outdoors.
But on Monday, the state allowed medium-risk sports, such as baseball, softball and soccer, to play games.
The Atlantic County Baseball League for high school, college and adult athletes began play this week, as did a few little leagues. The Last Dance, a tournament for pseudo New Jersey high school baseball teams, begins Tuesday with three games in Ocean City.
Meanwhile, Monday begins phase 1 of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s plan for the return of high school sports. But many Cape-Atlantic League schools will not participate. The CAL executive board of athletic directors recommended that league schools not begin workouts until July 27.
“We’re not prepared in all honesty,” CAL President and Egg Harbor Township athletic director Mike Pellegrino said earlier this month. “Between the needs of keeping the student-athlete safe, the safety of our coaches, we’re just needing more time to prepare a plan to keep everyone safe and sound. Most of our campuses aren’t even open yet. Personnel is not back on campus.”
For the schools that do participate, Phase 1 lasts until July 26 and allows no-contact workouts that last a maximum of 90 minutes. It is the first of four phases that will carry state high school sports to the start of fall-season practices.
The state’s athletes are receiving two different messages.
They can play a game for their club soccer team this Sunday, but Monday — if their school even participates in Phase 1 — they can only take part in a noncontact workout?
Guess who this conflict benefits — club teams.
In addition, several New Jersey school districts are involved in negotiations over whether to pay fall coaches. Districts don’t want to pay coaches for a season that might never happen.
This too benefits club teams. Athletes don’t care about school budgets or union vs. district issues. They just want to play, and if that means choosing to pay hundreds of dollars to join a club team over a dormant school team, they will gladly do it.
Many high school sports are already losing the fight to club sports. Top swimmers rarely — if ever — practice with their high school teams. A few top soccer players don’t compete for their school teams. The high school basketball coach has lost influence to the AAU coach. All-star 7-on-7 football teams have disrupted the summer routines of high school football coaches.
Many of the club teams are credible programs run by quality coaches and administrators, who are devoted to making athletes better players and people.
But there’s nothing better than competing for a high school or college, where you play for your fellow students in front of proud alumni.
When a high school wins, the whole town wins. Firetrucks greet state champions and sirens blare as the team bus rolls back into town.
But that crowded soccer sideline I saw Wednesday showed me one thing — if sports are allowed in New Jersey this fall, people are going to play.
High school superintendents, athletic directors and coaches should take heed. If there are no high school sports, the vacuum will be filled.
This pandemic has cost us so much.
It would be a shame if high schools had to hang going-out-of-business signs on their fields and gyms.