Kentucky High School Athletic Association commissioner Julian Tackett said he has never had to make a decision as difficult as the one to cancel the remainder of the 2020 Sweet Sixteen, as well as the entirety of the spring sports seasons, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, the goal is to not have another season gone completely, but what the upcoming seasons will look like is still in question. Tackett addressed some of the concerns that come with the return of sports in a wide-ranging Zoom meeting with reporters Friday.

“I just don’t think 2020 fall season in any sport is going to look like 2019,” Tackett said. “That’s probably the first thing that we ought to get into our heads.”

The KHSAA implemented a dead period March 13, which has since been extended to the end of May. The decision to cancel the remaining events in the 2019-20 calendar year came April 21. The organization expects another announcement near the end of May with directions and recommendations for its member schools.

In Thursday’s daily COVID-19 briefing in Frankfort, Gov. Andy Beshear announced Phase II of his Healthy at Work business reopening plan. Included in Phase II was the restarting of youth sports that are low-touch and outdoors June 15. Tackett says the announcement came with another series of questions, and that the KHSAA has asked for clarification on terms, like what “youth sports” encompasses, as well as the wording in the plan. Phase III, which is scheduled to begin in July, will involve groups of 50 people.

“We absolutely believe and have been led to believe by others that it encompasses what’s below junior high, so below seventh grade. Youth is youth,” Tackett said. “ ... We really need to get those clarified before any more misinformation gets out. The other thing we have is it’s May 8 and that’s June 15. We have a little bit of time.”

While unclear on exactly what that announcement means for high school competition in Kentucky at this point, it does provide hope for the fall, even if it looks different than the past.

“That is probably the most important thing that we have tried to keep going through all of this discussion, is hope,” Tackett said. “Hope that if we can help it, our athletes that played spring are the only ones that have a total season lost since World War II, and let’s hope we can do whatever we can to keep that from happening. Therefore, a measured approach is probably good. ... There is no rush because of the unknowns for us to jump back into the full-scale competition, and it will be a while before there’s some sense of people feeling normal, either playing or going to games.”

While the decision may bring hope of a return to sports, they likely won’t look the same, especially initially. With the plans to reopen the economy, Tackett sees businesses returning before sports as we knew them before the pandemic.

“Phase I is not very much protection and Phase II, frankly, requires so much PPE that I cannot imagine our schools having the resources to on-site test and on-site do what’s required in Phase II of the thing that was originally released by the White House,” he said. “Now you’re looking down the road at Phase III. Is Phase III possible? I haven’t seen a technical Phase IV, but we’re probably there before you get back to decent, full crowds.

“... The virus is in control. We do not know, and for us to sit here on May 8 and say, ‘OK, here’s what we’re going to do on June 20’ – it’s just probably not realistic to say with any surety that we’re definitely going to play or definitely not, but I feel a whole lot better than I did a week ago with some of the things nationally and statewide as far as options.”

The KHSAA’s annual dead period ranges from June 25-July 9, and, as of Friday, was still in place for 2020 as written in the organization’s bylaws. Tackett says it’s “one of the many things that’s got to be reviewed,” and says it’s been a point of discussion for the last six weeks. He also added it “may be the same dates and look different.”

The dates fall sports are scheduled to begin are staggered, and there are likely to be changes to the dates currently in place due to social distancing requirements.

According to the schedule in place, football can begin helmet-only practices on July 10 – Tackett says he’s “not optimistic at all about that” – and contact/full gear practices Aug. 1, with opening competitions set to be played Aug. 21. Soccer, golf, cross country and volleyball practices are scheduled to begin July 15, with dates of first competition varying. Golf is scheduled to begin matches July 31 and soccer is scheduled for first contests Aug. 10. Volleyball and cross country are scheduled to have first contests Aug. 17.

“We have to consider that while 2020 fall may not be a completely blank white board, we’ve got to erase most of the past and we’ve got to look at what’s different, and I think, right now from what we know, an all-or-nothing decision is not essential,” Tackett said.

That opens the possibility of some sports, like golf or cross country, having a higher likelihood of starting before others – with some modifications – due to social distancing abilities in those sports. Tackett talked about limiting ceremonies following golf tournaments, as well as limiting the number of teams which could safely compete in cross country meets.

Others, like volleyball, football and soccer, come with their own set of challenges. Social distancing is not feasible with frequent contact among players on the field, and volleyball is played indoors – an area not included in Beshear’s Phase II plan for the return of youth sports.

Tackett says the first hurdle, however, is to get student-athletes back on campuses with the ability to safely train. That may involve some schools or areas of the state being able to start earlier than others. Tackett compares it to Beshear’s Healthy at Work plan, where a business may reopen on a specific date if they meet certain guidelines and choose to.

“What that may mean is that a school in one area of the state is suddenly out practicing a little bit earlier than a school in another. We normally, in another year, say, ‘That’s terrible. We’ve got to have competitive effort,’ “ Tackett said. “All bets are off this year.

“It may be that a certain part of the state that hasn’t had a lot – you know, if I’m sitting in Bowling Green right now, I think the news I got the last couple of weeks is probably pushing me back a little later into starting because they’ve had a rampant outbreak in cases down there. If I’m sitting in three or four counties in the state that have not had a case at all, I might be comfortable starting that first day.”

As of Thursday, The Barren River Area Development District’s COVID-19 Dashboard – which uses data from the state Department of Public Health – said Warren County has 486 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, which is the majority of the 836 total cases in BRADD’s 10-county region. Totals in other counties are 188 in Butler, 41 in Edmonson, 32 in Simpson, 25 in Barren, 25 in Allen, 24 in both Barren and Logan, eight in Hart, six in Monroe and two in Metcalfe.

The Barren River District Health Department announced 764 total cases in a news release Thursday, including 492 in Warren, 126 in Butler, 42 in Edmonson, 40 in Logan, 30 in Simpson, 21 in Barren, 11 in Hart and two in Metcalfe. Of the 764 cases, 210 patients have reportedly recovered. The department also reported 18 deaths, including six in both Butler and Edmonson counties and two apiece in Warren, Simpson and Logan. There are at least 29 confirmed cases in Allen County, according to the Allen County Health Department, which is not part of the Barren River district.

Totals often differ between the state data and local health departments because of different reporting methods.

Testing athletes for COVID-19, as has been discussed with college and professional sports, is likely not feasible – Tackett points to having roughly 13,000 high school football players across the state. Athletes are required to have a current physical, and the commissioner said there is a possibility that the doctor may require testing before granting approval to play, but the KHSAA doesn’t “get in the middle of a doctor-patient relationship.”

Tackett has been meeting at least weekly with representatives from states in the National Federation of State High School Associations Section 2 – which includes Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, District of Columbia, Maryland and Delaware – to discuss the return of sports and complications that come with it. Several Kentucky teams also play against teams in neighboring states.

With changes to start dates, several factors come into play, especially with football – the last of the fall championships to be completed. Football overlaps the start of the basketball regular season, and is scheduled to conclude Dec. 5 at the University of Kentucky’s Kroger Field. Factors considered in pushing back the season’s start include weather and the availability of facilities.

Games being dropped from the regular-season schedule could also pose challenges. Several teams across the state compete in sponsored bowl games that involve travel to opposing schools or neutral locations. Later in the season, teams begin regular-season district play. Tackett doesn’t believe moving the season to the spring is feasible from a health and safety standpoint, since there would then be two full-contact periods in a period of less than nine months.

“There definitely needs to be some contingency planning about those (bowl games) and what we do if we can’t play those. Do we move them? Do we cancel a nondistrict game later on?” Tackett said. “Part of it also is envisioned in our current rules in that, if you were to get a seeded game or district game that couldn’t be played, there’s a provision where how it counts for both teams. We’ve kind of got some safety net, but I think right now everything has got to be on the table.”

Tackett said there have also been discussions about moving games to different days, times and locations to help meet social distancing requirements. That could involve smaller schools playing at larger facilities with turf fields, where wear-and-tear on the playing surface would be less of a factor.

One major concern of athletic events is fan attendance. Several leagues at varying levels put plans in place to play with limited or no attendance, before eventually suspending or canceling the seasons. Tackett said it created a “potential disaster” at the gates determining who would be allowed in.

“It’s not as easy as just saying, ‘We’re going to let 140 per team get in.’ That’s a big challenge.”

With Phase III of Kentucky’s reopening plan limiting groups to 50 people, large audiences at games could be off the table. Tackett said that at a stadium like Kroger Field, where the football finals are held, a crowd of 8,000-9,000 could potentially be socially distanced, but that would likely not be an option for smaller schools across the state during regular-season competition. Tackett talked about the possibility of advancing streaming options for games on the NFHS network, adding “we really are looking at everything.”

Crowd restrictions could create economic issues across the athletic departments as well.

“That can’t drive decisions, but it has to be a factor. We have a number of schools that, when we have realignment, the administrators aren’t necessarily as concerned that somebody might get beat 40. Their real concern is if they don’t get five gates,” Tackett said. “They need to make sure they can get five gates worth of revenue because that might pay for their tennis team. That might pay for their cross country team. There’s a reality here that our school people have to sort through that maybe we don’t always think about.”

While the economic impact might not be as obvious as in major college or professional sports, Tackett understands the importance of high school sports in Kentucky and what it would mean to the state for their return.

“It’s important for community, it’s important to society getting back to some feeling of normalcy. It may be, in some areas, important for revenue – that’s not the highest priority. I think at this particular point that the money is a secondary issue as much as the very, very, important issue to get society moving again, and get interaction going again, even if you’re no longer walking up like I have done for years and shaking hands and bro-hugging and all this other stuff,” Tackett said. “Even if you can’t do that for a while, it’s important to get society back together. That’s the very advantage of American interscholastic sports that no other country has, is what it does in the communities.

“I frequently tell groups when I’m asked to talk to groups that there’s three things that everybody in town can tell you – who was born this week, who died last week and when was the last time they were in a state championship. ... We feel like we’re a contributing block to getting the normalcy back, much more so than an inhibiting block.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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