How’s this for the ultimate first-day-on-the-job decision that must be made?
Say yes, and you potentially put the health of tens of thousands of high school students on the line. Say no, and you could cost schools hundreds of thousands, and jeopardize the professional futures of many of those same students.
So it went for Colleen Maguire, who was named chief of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association on June 3, becoming the first woman in the organization’s 102-year history to assume the role.
If the pressure wasn’t enough, Maguire was taking the reins of the state’s governing body for high school sports during an unprecedented public health crisis. New Jersey and the nation were reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, and the very existence of high school sports was at stake.
Even after the NJSIAA unveiled plans for an abbreviated 2020 fall season — with official practices beginning Sept. 14 and a shortened season that ends on Thanksgiving — the threat to high school sports still looms over every day and every decision.
The likelihood of a fall season actually being played remains very much in the air, considering the volatility of the virus and its current assault across the U.S.
“At times you’re at a loss of words and at times it’s pretty surreal,” said Maguire, 44, a former college basketball star at George Washington and previously the NJSIAA’s director of finance. “We don’t know what next week is going to look like and we don’t know what the school year is going to look like. All we can do is communicate regularly and keep planning for everything that we think could come our way.”
The coronavirus already wiped out the spring sports season, dealing athletes across the state a crippling blow. Now, the NJSIAA is desperately trying to deliver some semblance of a fall sports season to young athletes urgently in need of good news.
It’s an incalculable amount to weigh, none of it more striking than the life-and-death health risks associated with resuming high school sports. The absence of competition could jeopardize thousands of dollars in college scholarships for countless New Jersey families, while the emotional, social and physical benefit for roughly 283,000 high schoolers is riding on the decision.
Not to mention one of the biggest fears of all is that if the NJSIAA can’t safely bring back high school sports, someone else could — namely a traveling, select or youth organization that may be more interested in dollars than safety.
“The last thing we want is high school sports being conducted by some third-party, profit-making entity,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, an avid sports fan who sits on the NJSIAA Executive Committee. “You take away the NJSIAA-sanctioned high school sports, that void will be filled by entities who will not be as responsible, careful or safe.”
Oh, and there’s one other little entity hanging in the balance: The NJSIAA itself.
Roughly 40% of the organization’s revenue comes from hosting state tournament and championship events, Maguire said. With the spring season eliminated, the organization already is projecting “a pretty substantial loss for the 2019-20 school year,” according to Maguire. She said it’s too early to determine specific losses, but added that spring typically is the NJSIAA’s most profitable season of the year.
If high school sports don’t resume this fall, the result could be catastrophic, including forcing the NJSIAA to consider eliminating some of the 33 sports it offers to boys and girls.
“I’m very concerned that if we don’t get some revenues coming in, we’re going to make some hard decisions in the near future,” Maguire said. “There could be substantial need for cuts in some areas.”
The weight of it all has made one thing clear: This year’s games in New Jersey — if they happen — will mean more than ever before.
‘An evolving situation’
The sports world changed literally overnight March 11, when the NBA abruptly halted play in response to the coronavirus pandemic, followed by the NHL and MLS. The NCAA announced the cancellation of all of its winter and spring championships, and the MLB suspended spring training.
The cancellations trickled to high school sports, wiping out the spring sports season in New Jersey. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t work to do. The NJSIAA formed a special COVID Task Force in late May comprised of top administrators, medical experts and school officials from across New Jersey. The group meets weekly to monitor the spread of the virus, study data and discuss best practices and a return-to-play protocol.
The meetings are intense, the magnitude of topics clear. Just last week, Carteret Public Schools became New Jersey’s first school district to overstep the NJSIAA and cancel all fall sports, citing concerns over safety for students and staff.
The move could place even more pressure on the NJSIAA, especially if Carteret’s decision sparks a domino effect with other schools, or if some districts look to cut costs by canceling fall sports.
“I don’t think you’re going to find a group of people that have spent more time and worked harder and more passionately to do this right,” said Damion Martins, director of sports medicine for Atlantic Health System and a member of the task force. “We really tried to consider every alternative. What the plan is today may not be the plan tomorrow because this is an evolving situation.”
Meanwhile, Maguire meets weekly with other state executive directors from the northeast to share information. She also sits in on weekly updates from the National Federation of State High School Associations, which center on sharing safety measures different states are implementing and advising on best practices for returning to play.
The weekly, sometimes daily, routine includes conversations with Sarlo, who serves as a liaison between the NJSIAA and the state legislature. On July 20, Gov. Phil Murphy announced drills and practices for sports considered high-risk for the spread of the coronavirus — including football, wrestling and cheerleading — could resume as long as they are held at outdoor venues. Other low-risk youth sports already received the green light from the Governor’s office.
NJSIAA officials also are in constant contact with the New Jersey Department of Education, as they try to understand how school days in the state are most likely to unfold. The department of education released guidance in June for reopening schools, although districts will be allowed the autonomy to determine protocol beyond state requirements. Gov. Murphy announced last month the plans will include an all-remote learning option for students when schools reopen in the fall.
Steve Goodell, an NJSIAA attorney since 1991, said the stakes are unprecedented. The NJSIAA has faced countless emergencies through the years — battles with lawmakers over rules and regulations, criticism over penalties doled out to schools and uncertainty after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the state.
But it’s nothing like what’s happening now, he said.
“It’s not comparable to any other crisis,” Goodell added. “This involves the existence of sports itself. It’s on a completely different scale.”
The NJSIAA unveiled coronavirus guidelines for returning to play earlier this month, including weight room and weight training best practices and summer recess return-to-play procedures. The guidelines include three phases of summer workouts, which began July 13 with no-contact, outdoor sessions limited to 10 players per pod and without any shared equipment. The phases slowly ramp up the size and scope of the workouts if no positive coronavirus cases are reported by teams and schools.
The summer session ends Aug. 28, followed by a two-week hiatus for all sports. Official fall practices are slated to begin Sept. 14, followed by the first games and matches kicking off Sept. 28. Under the revised schedule, the abbreviated fall sports season must conclude on Thanksgiving Day.
That’s the plan for now. But Maguire admitted the NJSIAA will need to be ready for those plans to change — potentially again and again and again.
Already, the landscape is rapidly changing. In addition to Carteret opting out of sports, Holmdel’s high school basketball team was forced to quarantine last week after a player tested positive for COVID-19. School officials said a spike in cases could cause the district to “strongly consider” suspending the fall sports season.
The NJSIAA may be forced to reassess its plans to resume play earlier than it imagined, especially as more schools cancel workouts and some districts push for remote learning in the fall. An all-remote model in particular could make it tricky for sports to resume. At the college level, universities are taking criticism for bringing athletes back to campus for workouts and potentially exposing them to the virus, while regular students remain home.
“Our goal as a task force is to identify every type of contingency plan that will be needed based on changes to the school day,” Maguire said.
A proposal already is being considered as a contingency plan that would postpone high school sports to 2021 and run abbreviated fall, winter and spring sports seasons at different intervals from Jan. 2 through June 30.
That plan is being evaluated as some states are taking drastic measures to alter the high school sports season. Last month, the Virginia High School League announced there will not be a high school football season in the fall; New Mexico was next to pull the plug on football and soccer. Even officials in football-crazed Texas are pondering moving or canceling the fall season.
It’s left some sports fans in the state wondering: Could New Jersey be next?
Days after being named NJSIAA chief, Maguire’s inbox started blowing up with emails from moms, dads, coaches and athletic directors. The sentiments were the same: “Our young people have suffered enough. Please find a way to bring back high school sports.”
“That motivates me every day, honestly,” Maguire said. “If the kids are in school, we need to figure out a way to provide some participation opportunity. We need to find a way to give them that outlet. That’s our mission.”
She thinks often about the virus. What if it surges again in New Jersey? What if there’s a severe outbreak in one part of the state, but not another? What if schools are ordered by Gov. Murphy to close again? What if some school districts opt for remote learning only?
How will it all impact sports?
“I anticipate meeting weekly well into the school year because this isn’t just a fall sports season issue,” Maguire said. “It’s a school year issue.”
If there’s no significant change with the virus in New Jersey the rest of the summer, Maguire said high school sports will resume in earnest the first week of October. That doesn’t mean that plan can’t or won’t change.
The summer training session ends Aug. 28, kicking off a two-week hiatus. That will be a crucial time to reassess the 2020 high school sports season, if necessary.
“If students are in-person, we start up practices Sept. 14 and we’re hitting the ground running,” Maguire said. “If people just apply commonsense measures, I think we can still provide a meaningful season for these student athletes.”