Why change at the top of the MDHHS has given winter high school sports a glimmer of hope – Detroit Free Press

Nothing has changed. Boys and girls basketball, hockey and competitive cheer teams are still in a holding pattern in this coronavirus pandemic.

But now there is a glimmer of hope that those sports may be able to play before the Feb. 21 date arbitrarily set last week by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

The hope comes from the appointment of Elizabeth Hertel to replace Robert Gordon as the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Gordon resigned last Friday, shortly after Whitmer ruled that indoor dining can resume on a limited basis while also pushing back the beginning of the four “contact” winter sports.

It appears that Michigan High School Athletic Association executive director Mark Uyl felt that talking to Gordon about high school athletics was like talking to someone who didn’t know if a football was stuffed or inflated.

Joey Tocco, a senior at Dakota High School in Macomb Township, plays basketball at home during the coronavirus shutdown.

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“I can tell you the previous four days of communication this week with the health department has been better than it probably has been in the previous four months,” Uyl said Friday morning in a video chat with reporters. “There certainly is a very clear change that communication and dialogue is something that is valued by director Hertel. We’re appreciative all of the communication we’ve had.

“Now at some point here we need decisions to be made and hopefully those will be made very, very quickly.”

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Before Whitmer blindsided the MHSAA last week by delaying the start of competition for the four “contact” sports by about three weeks, the MHSAA had drawn a plan to complete all of the winter seasons before the start of spring sports season, which didnt’ happen last year.

But before this state can join the other 38 states playing winter sports, including border states of Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, the MHSAA needs to show the MDHHS and Whitmer that playing “contact” indoor sports does not increase the danger to high school student athletes in this pandemic.

It would also like to know exactly what the MDHHS and Whitmer expect to see from the MHSAA in regards to athletics and COVID-19 positive test results.

“The two most pressing question are: ‘What are the numbers that are currently preventing us from playing?’ ” Uyl asked. “And the corollary question to that is: ‘What do the numbers have to look like for us to play?’ ”

MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl hugs his son DeWitt linebacker Grant Uyl (4) after the Panthers defeated River Rouge,,40-30, to win the MHSAA Division 3 final at Ford Field in Detroit on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.

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Those are questions Uyl has been asking for months and still has not received an answer.

The governor and the MDHHS paused MHSAA playoffs in football, volleyball and girls swimming and diving in mid-November and had good reason to do it.

“I think we all understood the November pause when numbers were escalating and skyrocketing, why a pause had to be made,” Uyl said. “We’re responsible people here. We are an organization here that is governed and led by educators. We’re in this to work for what’s best for kids.”

Since then, though, new cases are down about a third and the positive test rate has dropped by more than half, which is why Uyl is wondering why the remaining winter sports have been pushed back again.

“It does beg the question right now, given those great improvement of those metrics,” Uyl said, “what are the metrics being used specifically when it comes to school sports?”

Part of Uyl’s dismay are the encouraging results from the MDHHA’s pilot program of rapid testing used as the MHSAA completed the playoffs in football, volleyball and girls swimming and diving; the negative testing rate was 99.8%.

But those numbers didn’t seem to resonate with Whitmer and the MDHHS.

“We thought the numbers would be good, the numbers were extraordinarily good,” Uyl said. “Remember that these were three sports, two of which were exclusively indoor sports, and the reality for football was many of our football teams were practicing indoors.”

Some schools have suggested instituting rapid testing programs for winter sports, but Uyl pointed out that is not feasible.

The prior program involved 5,300 athletes in the final weeks of completing their seasons. There are approximately 60,000 athletes competing in winter sports.

An MHSAA lawsuit against the governor and the MDHHS would be a waste of time, Uyl said, given the lack of success restaurants and fitness centers had going to court.

And you can forget about the MHSAA defying the governor and the MDHHS and beginning play in the four sports currently on hold.

“As an organization and an association of member schools, many of which are public schools, ignoring current law would put many of our school districts in a very difficult position,” Uyl said. “As much as we’ve been frustrated about the way things have gone since August, at the end of the day, we have had to follow, up until October, the governor’s executive orders. The same goes with MDHHS emergency orders.”

Some schools have inquired about going out of state to play games before the season begins in Michigan.

“While going out of state might make sense for Monroe or Ontonagon, and for those near the borders, what is Alpena supposed to do?” Uyl asked. “You want to talk about putting some schools at a real disadvantage if we said you can go ahead and compete, but it has to be out of state. It brings a whole new set of problems.”

Uyl does not believe it will take much time for games to begin even though teams have not been permitted to have contact practices.

“As many of you know, my wife is currently a high school basketball coach,” he said. “Going back to Jan 16 with practice, I’m not sure basketball kids have ever done more running and shooting, in terms of getting their bodies in condition and being ready to go than this year.”

Some basketball coaches around the state appear to have lost their minds over the delay, wondering if they will be able to complete their seasons.

They need to relax and let the process play out.

“It’s still January,” Uyl said. “We also just finished fall championship that were two months later than they were scheduled to end. 

“The goal is still three seasons that reach the finish line. But we have to know when our winter is going to start.”

To that end, Uyl is unusually optimistic, given the way the MHSAA has been regularly ignored by the governor and the MDHHS to this point.

That is a reflection of how quickly Hertel appears to have grasped the MHSAA’s position on beginning the remaining winter sports seasons as soon as possible.

“For the first time in a long time they are looking at the data, they understand the data and they see how the data can affect future decisions,” Uyl said. “We firmly believe now is the time to take the next step to allow those four winter sports, for those contact practices, to begin immediately and for the winter competition to immediately begin also.”

Mick McCabe is a former longtime columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at mick.mccabe11@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1. Save $10 on his new book, “Mick McCabe’s Golden Yearbook: 50 Great Years of Michigan’s Best High School Players, Teams & Memories,” by ordering right now at McCabe.PictorialBook.com

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