All summer, athletes and fans anticipate the fall sports season. But this year, coaches and schools face difficult decisions as they ponder if, when and how to resume sports programs amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Several NCAA conferences, including football powerhouses Big Ten and Pac-12, have canceled fall sports.
The SEC plans to kick off football season Sept. 26 with a 10-game, conference-only schedule designed to promote flexibility as the pandemic situation develops. Sun Belt Conference schools plan to begin play with eight conference games over Labor Day weekend.
Alabama high schools are facing similar decisions. For example, Choctaw, Barbour, Sumter and Greene County schools elected not to have football and volleyball this fall, and Barbour County canceled all athletics for the entire 2020–21 academic year.
Robin Mears, executive director of the Alabama Christian Education Association, said most ACEA programs opted to play only required games and to spread them throughout the season.
But many other high schools are moving ahead with traditional fall sports, navigating practice and game obstacles.
Crenshaw County Schools Superintendent Dodd Hawthorne said the health of students and staff is their No. 1 priority.
“When you have student athletes or coaches with symptoms, you have to send people home from practice and possibly not have practice for a while. We make sure we disinfect every day and try to social distance as best as possible, but when you’re playing athletics, especially football, it’s a challenge.”
Other athletic contests pose similar challenges, Hawthorne said. Health screenings, gloves and face coverings are required for gate and concession volunteers; spectators are required to wear face coverings and observe social distancing.
Ryan Neiswender, professional athlete and Fellowship of Christian Athletes alumnus, said coaches and athletes need encouragement during this uncertain and frustrating time.
John Gibbons, Alabama FCA director, added that now is the time for churches to ask, “How can we support you?” Volunteering to help with equipment sanitation or feeding teams during practice or on game day are great places to start, Gibbons said.
Hawthorne noted what schools need most is prayer, but churches can also help by donating disinfecting supplies.
Quieting criticism will be extremely helpful too, Mears said.
“Try to be supportive and not too critical,” he said. “Some argue that we shouldn’t be playing [sports.] Try to be supportive of how the students view this because they are trying to do something they may never have another opportunity in life to do. Our goal is not really the game but rather the development of the entire person spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally.”
One school at a time
Russell McCrory, minister to students at First Baptist Church, Montgomery, encourages churches to partner with at least one local school. He suggests churches start small, remain humble and consistent and engage the whole church by sharing what’s happening with the students.
“Even though COVID-19 is changing things up, I’ll continue as chaplain of the [Sidney Lanier High School] team, wearing a mask when required and supporting them from the sidelines,” McCrory said.
“We’ve been able to join summer practices and cheer on the team as they prepare for the season. Our members plan to prepare meals and bring them to the church to be boxed up, rather than gathering in a small kitchen as we have in the past. And we’ll continue to offer words of encouragement to the team over these meals.”
Brandon Matthews, college ministry coordinator for Bush Baptist Church, Troy, serves Troy University students and said even with COVID-19 limitations, there’s a need for churches to connect with student athletes.
“We’re in a unique period of time where a lot of conveniences and idols have been exposed,” Matthews said. “This [pandemic] has presented an opportunity for evaluating where we find our joy.
“I’ve had multiple conversations where athletes ask, ‘Are we going to have a season this year?’ All the anxiety and confusion have led to opportunities to point people to Jesus.”
Matthews added that with some schools delaying sports programs, student athletes need Christians to pour into their lives, now more than ever.
“Athletics is one of the greatest character development tools we have,” Matthews said. “There is going to be a need, especially among young men, to be invested in by other men.”