‘We have to be flexible,’ NYSPHSAA executive director says about future of high school sports

The start date for high school winter sports deemed to be high risk has been pushed back to Jan. 4, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced Tuesday. Long Island public schools already had Jan. 4 penciled in as the first day of practice for their winter season, with all three of its condensed sports seasons planned for the first half of 2021.

Low-and-moderate-risk winter sports — identified by the New York State Department of Health as bowling, gymnastics, indoor track and field, skiing, swimming and diving — have permission to begin Nov. 30. High-risk winter sports, however, have yet to receive authorization from state officials. Those sports are basketball, competitive cheer, ice hockey and wrestling.

All winter state championships remain scheduled.

The NYSPHSAA announcement comes amid concerns about the state’s rising infection rate, which casts uncertainty on the winter season. Then again, uncertainty is no stranger to 2020.

“At this point in time, our advocacy efforts are somewhat hindered by the fact that we’re seeing a rise in COVID infection rates, and we’re all receiving a lot of concerns from our membership about high-risk sports,” Dr. Robert Zayas, the NYSPHSAA executive director, said in a Zoom meeting with media members Tuesday.

Asked if he had a sense of whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo will give high-risk sports his stamp of approval should the coronavirus situation not worsen by Jan. 4, Zayas said, “I’m optimistic that if we can get the COVID infection rates to start moving in the other direction, then I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to also start expanding some of the sport offerings.”

High-risk winter sports were originally scheduled to start Nov. 16 before being rescheduled for Nov. 30 and then Jan. 4.

Zayas had a strong response when a questioner suggested that continual postponements gave student-athletes false hope. Why not make a decision now to cancel the winter season?

“Absolutely not,” Zayas answered. “We’re not going to cancel prematurely. We’re not going to make a decision in November to cancel the winter sports season without having all the available information and being able to work with our state officials. I’m very cognizant that there’s close to 600,000 student-athletes that are relying upon our association and our 11 sections to provide them with the opportunity to participate in interscholastic athletics. We take that responsibility very seriously, and we’re going to do everything that we possibly can to provide those participation opportunities for student-athletes … We are not going to cancel before it would be absolutely necessary.”

Referring to states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania that are currently playing high-risk sports, Zayas said: “I think we also have to keep in mind that Pennsylvania has a 19-percent infection rate, I believe, or they did just a short time period ago, so as we look at what other states are doing, we need to be cognizant that our state officials are examining their own set of metrics, and they’re examining the data as they see fit, and that’s a reason why we have some of the lowest infection rates in the entire country.”

Zayas emphasized that everything is subject to change. “I advised our executive committee a few weeks ago that we have to become comfortable being uncomfortable,” he said. “We have to understand that things are unknown and uncertain right now.”

“I continue to stress to our membership and to our staff that we have to be flexible,” he added. “We have to be willing to pivot when needed and I don’t think that we should go ahead and put anything in stone during this crisis.”