If football is approved for play this fall by the Maine Principals’ Association on Thursday, games would start no sooner than Sept. 25, a week later than other sports. Brewster Burns/Sun Journal

High school football received a reprieve Wednesday, the day before officials will determine whether there will be a fall sports season in Maine high schools.

The Maine Principals’ Association’s Sports Medicine Committee recommended on Wednesday to move forward with all of the traditional fall sports – including football and soccer – under COVID-19 safety guidelines established for each sport. Football has been considered a high risk sport under state and national guidelines, and soccer was put in the same category under guidelines the principals group received from the state last week.

The panel’s recommendations will be voted on Thursday afternoon when the association’s Interscholastic Management Committee meets to decide the fate of high school sports in Maine this fall. Those sports include golf, cross country, field hockey, soccer, football and volleyball.

Even then, local districts will have the final say on whether a high school competes in interscholastic athletics this fall. Already, Camden Hills has opted not to play this fall.

“The management committee makes the final decision to support these recommendations,” Mike Burnham, the MPA’s executive director, said at the conclusion of a virtual meeting that lasted over four hours. “The final decision on whether or not these activities move forward are made at the local level.”

The recommendations on football came as a surprise to many. At least 17 states – including Massachusetts and Vermont – will not play tackle football this fall. Football is rated as a “high-risk” activity, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and even the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee.

“It was kind of a 180,” Cony High football coach B.L. Lippert said of the panel’s decision to move forward with football. “(I’m) still remaining cautiously optimistic about the season. But for today, it’s as good of news as we could have hoped for.”

“Today I think was a pretty good day for football players and their families,” added Bonny Eagle football coach Kevin Cooper. “It’s definitely been a tough couple of weeks, I think, that Maine wasn’t going to have football, and soccer, as well.”

The Sports Medicine Committee met for about 2 ½ hours in executive session to discuss recommendations set forth by the fall sports committees, each of which provided specific COVID-19 modifications that could make their sports safe to play. When the discussion ended, committee members voted unanimously (12-0) to recommend that each sport be allowed to play in the fall.

Several of the fall sports required little debate as to whether the committee would recommend they be played. Those were golf, cross country, volleyball and field hockey. They were all classified by the national federation and the state’s community sports guidelines as either “low risk” or “moderate risk” activities.

“We can safely say those sports can play,” said Dr. William Heinz, the head of the Sports Medicine Committee.

But football and soccer required further debate.

While soccer was classified as a “moderate risk” activity by the national federation, the sport was classified as a “high risk” activity under the community sports guidelines modified in July by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

Messalonskee High boys’ soccer Coach Tom Sheridan, center, directs his players during preseason workouts Wednesday in Oakland. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“And my recommendation is that we follow what the National Federation of State High School Associations has put out,” Heinz said. “They based that from the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the Olympic Committee. I’m willing to put soccer in the moderate category.”

The biggest surprise was football. Heinz said the decision partly stemmed from looking at other states with higher COVID-19 infection rates than Maine that already are playing football.

“It’s important that we continue to look across the country at states that have opened up football already and haven’t shown any increase in transmission of the COVID illness,” Heinz said. “(That) was one of the big reasons that we based our decision saying it was OK to go ahead with football.

“But we are going to watch that on a very close basis and if things change we have to change our recommendation.”

Tryouts for all fall sports would begin on Sept. 8, with games starting no sooner than Sept. 18. The first football games would start one week later, on Sept. 25. High school sports in Maine have been shut down since April 9 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Burnham said, ultimately, each sport faces the possibility of having its season stopped or altered because of COVID-19.

“This virus is going to decide if we are able to complete a season,” he said. “We all understand that as things change, we’re going to have to look at everything we’re doing, from a full educational standpoint.”

The Sports Medicine Committee includes two physicians, two certified athletic trainers, a school nurse and administrators from school districts around the state, according to the principals association website. Heinz is a retired orthopedic surgeon who also once served as the chair of the NFHS’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. He also has worked with the Maine Concussion Management Initiative at Colby College in Waterville.

Heinz stressed that each school put together an emergency action plan should an outbreak occur. “I think this year more than any year it is really crucial that every venue have a well-rehearsed emergency action plan,” he said. “All these sports take a risk. There an underlying risk of injury and illness in any sport from the nature of the sport. What we’ve added is COVID-19 illness on top of that. So there is more risk this year than ever before.”

Some school administrators were surprised by the decision to recommend all sports be played this fall.

“We will have to wait see what the management committee does (Thursday) and then have discussions among the superintendents,” said John Suttie, superintendent of RSU 23 and principal at Old Orchard Beach High.

Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, which is the parent organization of the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association, said discussions on sports this fall “have been all over the map.”

He said school officials recognize the importance of interscholastic sports for the social and emotional well-being of the participants, but there are concerns that playing against other schools could increase the chances of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Among the recommendations for all sports is that face masks would be worn on the sidelines or as athletes approach the field, but not during competition. The one exception is volleyball, the only fall sport to be played inside. Volleyball players would be required to wear masks during matches.

Coaches and sideline personnel also would be required to wear face masks. Sideline areas will be extended to allow the players to socially distance. Pregame meetings with officials have been modified. Regional schedules will be used in all sports. Timeouts will be extended to allow players to adequately get water and to sanitize equipment.

Heinz said education about COVID-19 is important for both the players and the coaches to deal with the changes that will accompany each sport this fall. “That will be a big piece of allowing any of these sports to get back,” he said. “And these kids are going to have to learn that they’ve got to do what we suggested or the sports are going to get shut down.”

Now the MPA’s Interscholastic Management Committee faces its pivotal vote on Thursday. The committee chaired by Steve Bell, the principal at Dexter High, consists of 12 members, including liaisons from the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.

Leavitt football Coach Mike Hathaway was encouraged by Wednesday’s news.

“I’ve been a pretty big proponent that we should play, for a lot of reasons. But we’re still only halfway there. I’m super appreciative of the work the (MPA) Football Committee did, as well as the Sports Medicine Committee. … They’ve made a good case for the management committee to vote yes (on Thursday).”

– Kennebec Journal Sports Writers Drew Bonifant and Dave Dyer contributed to this story.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under:

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.