Parents, medical experts weigh risks of playing football amid pandemic

Warner Robins running back Jahlen Rutherford (24) is brought down by Buford's Mason Mccranie (right) in the second half during the GHSA AAAAA state championship game at Georgia State Stadium on Friday, December 13, 2019. Buford won 17-14 over Warner Robins in overtime. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Warner Robins running back Jahlen Rutherford (24) is brought down by Buford's Mason Mccranie (right) in the second half during the GHSA AAAAA state championship game at Georgia State Stadium on Friday, December 13, 2019. Buford won 17-14 over Warner Robins in overtime. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

GHSA could reach a decision on season Wednesday

Some of the leading health experts in Georgia believe it would be a mistake to play high school football this fall. Some of the parents of high school football players believe it would be a mistake not to play.

And somewhere in between is a decision that the Georgia High School Association, local school boards and the state could reach as early as Wednesday.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state’s coronavirus health expert, told high school officials Monday during a Zoom conference that she had concerns about high school participation in football, chorus, band and competitive cheerleading this fall. The GHSA will discuss those concerns with its medical advisory committee Wednesday and could reassess its decision to start football games the weekend of Sept. 4.

Two weeks ago, schools had reported 665 positive cases among players, coaches and staff. Many schools across the state are not practicing while in quarantine, and a few schools have said they will not play this season.

“Health and safety are absolutely the first concern with my son,” said Yvonne Clark, mother of Norcross senior defensive tackle Camren Lark. “I stay on him. He stays in the house except for training. I tell him this is the new normal and that the old normal is not going to exist anymore. He’s a senior now, so he’s old enough to know he needs to be as safe as possible.

“He really wants to play, and as a senior, this is his last year with his team. They’ve played together for a long time. The kids need something to take their mind off COVID, and if you leave them at home, that could lead to trouble. Football is the structure that keeps them together.”

Added Amy Crawford, whose son Clay Crawford is a senior offensive lineman at Pepperell: “Any sort of nod to normalcy is probably a good thing, and I’m super thankful to the GHSA for deciding to start practice as early as they did.”

Zachary Binney, who is an epidemiologist and an assistant professor of quantitative theory and methods at Oxford College of Emory University, agrees that safety should be everyone’s top concern, and therefore he’s skeptical that tackle football can be played without compromising that standard. Like many medical experts, he puts sports into categories based on risk of transmitting COVID-19. He views golf, tennis and track and field as “excellent low risk options,” with baseball and soccer falling into the intermediary category. He views football and basketball as two of the riskier sports.

Couple the high transmission probability associated with playing football with the recent surge in confirmed cases across Georgia, and you have what Binney believes to be a potentially dangerous situation.

“Unfortunately, our situation in Georgia right now with COVID-19 is not great,” Binney said. “It would be easier if we had the situation under control. I would encourage the GHSA to think very carefully about whether tackle football is really something that is necessary this year. Every step we take back toward normality has a risk and a benefit associated with it. You want to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say I really think the benefit — however you define it — outweighs the risk. And we’ve seen families get sick as a result of the virus spreading through high school football practices.

“So ask yourself if that’s worth it to you to have tackle football back.”

Binney offered two compromises for the GHSA to consider for its football season: converting to flag football and having the same 2-3 schools face off multiple times to fill out the schedule. But the GHSA likely would not consider those options.

Barbara Hingst’s son, Brody Hingst, will be a sophomore at Pace Academy and plays linebacker and running back for the Knights. She has played out the risk-benefit analysis during discussions with her family, and like many others she’s spoken with, reached a conclusion more in line with how her son and most players feel.

“From where I sit there is no right or wrong answer,” Hingst said. “In a global sense, it truly is a family-by-family decision, based on that family. You have to assess the risk and whether you are willing to live with that. Part of what kids need is physical activity and that team environment, that level of socialization. Staying at home and doing everything on a computer doesn’t make that happen, so we have to try to do what we do as safely as we can.”

Hingst and other parents who spoke on the record were quick to point out all the unprecedented protocols schools have put in place to create a safer environment during practice. The sessions have been non-contact, coaches wear masks and staff and players are tested regularly. Players bring their own water bottles and towels and are social distancing.

While those measures can be applied toward practice, not all of them are possible while playing football. From a COVID-19 standpoint, there’s no way around that.

“It’s tough to imagine a football game where everyone’s six feet apart and wearing a mask,” said Dr. Richard Rothenberg, a professor in the School of Public Health at Georgia State who specializes in infectious diseases and epidemiology. “It’s just not going to happen that way. Football is a contact sport. If I could restructure this, playing is not an infectious-disease issue. It’s a social and financial issue. The epidemiology issue is straightforward. There’s an upward trajectory in confirmed cases, hospitals are filling up and playing is likely to do much more damage to the economy if we continue down this road than if we put a halt to it.

“I think it would be a big mistake to play high school football.”

Rothenberg and Binney acknowledged there are social, psychological well-being and economic implications to canceling the football season. But as Rothenberg pointed out, he believes playing the long game takes priority over the present.

“We’ve been playing the short game for six months,” Rothenberg said. “Everything was starting to look OK, and we were on a good trajectory. So we said, ‘Great, we’re fine.’ Then we opened back up. In retrospect, that was clearly wrong, and we are seeing the results of that right now. Doing it this way made the economy worse.”

Dr. Phillip Coule, chief medical officer at Augusta University, takes a different approach to the issue. He sees the risk for the high-school age group as very low, noting that younger patients do well if they do get the virus.

“The health risk for them is far less than the risks associated with actually playing football,” Coule said. “The biggest risk with a season is the act of attending games in the stands. You can’t have people jam-packed in the stands, screaming and coughing and releasing droplets for others to inhale.”

Coule recommends fans shift to the already-available option of the NFHS Network to watch their teams streamed live, instead of going to the games. He also mentioned scaling back on school bands.

“They’re at a higher risk because they’re playing instruments, which is potentially generating aerosol for others,” he said.

Coule believes it’s important not to focus only on COVID-19, but also on the overall well-being of people.

“Team sports exist because they matter for our human interactions,” he said. “Without a sense of normalcy, mental health becomes at stake. Alcoholism and child abuse are up with people cooped at home. We have to balance controlling the disease with living our lives. It’s a fine line. … We have to learn to minimize and control risk, but we cannot live in a cave forever.”

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