Alexandria football coach Mike Empting wanted to make one thing clear right away when he was contacted to get his thoughts on the Minnesota high school football and volleyball seasons being moved from the fall to early spring.
The Minnesota State High School League’s Board of Directors voted on that outcome on Aug. 4. Football and volleyball will move to a period from mid-March through mid-May, with those programs being able to hold up to 12 practices from Sept. 14 through Oct. 3.
Soccer, cross country, girls tennis and girls swim and dive will remain in the fall under a modified season. Sports that were previously held in the spring through the state high school league will be shifted to a later spring-summer season from mid-May until mid-July. The status of postseason tournaments is still to be determined.
“I want to preference everything by saying first of all that I believe what we’re going through is real. There is definitely a population that is very much at risk and needs to be protected,” Empting said. “But just in terms of looking at the sports and being moved and all those things, there’s a lot of impacts.”
Empting is frustrated that volleyball and football teams for member schools of the Minnesota State High School League were never given a chance to try to hold their seasons in the fall.
He believes they would have provided a safe environment with strict safety protocols for kids to play the sports they love, while being able to look at the data to make informed decisions.
“This is really hard because it makes it very difficult for us to advocate for our activities and for our kids without sounding like we don’t care about or we don’t believe that this is a dangerous situation,” Empting said. “That we don’t care about the safety of either ourselves or our kids and their families. I really, really do. My parents are in a high-risk category based on age and some other health-related things. I do understand. I think the majority of coaches understand...We completely understand the seriousness of all this, but at the same time I do feel like I have to advocate for my kids. It’s not just kids. I’m hearing from parents as well on this.”
Empting helped run the Cardinals’ strength and speed program this past summer, where he said nearly 180 kids took part under strict safety protocols without any issues.
There were athletes who reported being exposed outside of the program, he said. They got tested, and none came back positive. Those athletes excluded themselves from the strength and speed program until the test results came back.
As of Aug. 12, Minnesota had a total of 62,303 positive COVID-19 cases, with 55,855 of those no longer needing isolation. Of the 1,678 deaths in the state, 1,260 of those were people in long-term care or assisted living facilities.
A total of 335 Minnesotans were hospitalized as of Wednesday, with 154 of them in ICU settings. As of Aug. 12, Douglas County had 144 cumulative cases, with 15 of those being active cases, according to Horizon Public Health.
A second COVID-19 death in Douglas County was reported by the Minnesota Department of Health on Wednesday. The victim was in the same age range, 50 to 59, as the first death, which was reported on Aug. 8.
Those in higher age categories and with underlying health issues run a higher risk of experiencing greater symptoms related to COVID-19. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, there have been 7,597 cases for kids ages 6-19 with zero deaths. Four deaths have been reported in the state out of 14,539 cases in people ages 20-29.
Concern also stems from people of younger ages being carriers of the virus and putting those in high-risk categories in greater jeopardy. Empting understands that, but said he also sees the reality of the situation that kids are not quarantining and social distancing right now.
Athletes are finding ways to compete, he said. He recently talked with a parent whose kid wrestled in a tournament in South Dakota where he said 1,200 people were in the arena. Players are traveling for AAU basketball and other summer sports where safety protocols might not be as organized as would be under the guidance of school systems.
“That’s why I just think by shutting down sports, we’re not shutting down kids,” Empting said. “We’re not shutting down families. They’re going to go, and they’re going to go in a more uncontrolled fashion. When I talk about safety, I do think keeping them in their sports and in their pods is more safe than cutting them loose and letting them go all over the place.”
Empting said he also recognizes that there are issues of liability schools and the state high school league have to consider, and that there are still unknowns about long-term effects COVID-19 might have for those who test positive. That uncertainty is leading many institutions to err on the side of caution.
The Big Ten Conference announced the postponement of its fall college sports season on Tuesday, saying in a statement that it relied on the medical advice and counsel of the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee.
Reports in the last week cited concern among college administrators about a rare heart condition that could be linked to COVID-19 at a higher frequency, based on limited studies. Myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, has been found in at least five Big Ten athletes. The condition is usually caused by a viral infection, including those that cause the common cold, H1N1 influenza or mononucleosis.
“My understanding about that, and I don’t know everything there is to know about that, but it can be caused by a virus, not just coronavirus,” Empting said. “It’s an unknown and we don’t know the long term effects, but if we wait to do long-term studies, then we’re going to be shut down for a very long time.”
Empting came back to his belief that kids would run less risk of contracting the virus by being in a controlled environment that sports under school guidance would provide.
“Again, I’m all about keeping our kids and our communities safe,” he said. “But I just don’t think shutting down activities is going to stop this. It’s not going to stop kids.”
Empting is also the varsity boys track and field coach in Alexandria, so this is the second season he had canceled or postponed due to the virus after the 2020 spring season was called off. As a coach and teacher for decades now, he believes in the power of sports being a vehicle for teaching life lessons. He knows that another group of kids will be there for him to coach whenever life does return to more normalcy.
“But I look at our seniors, they have a finite amount of time,” Empting said. “They’re not like a coach where they have that next group. I feel bad for our seniors who lost their last seasons. That’s it. These are things that they love doing.”
When school activities might get back to normal still remains so unclear. Empting knows there is no guarantee anything surrounding the virus will have changed in November or March that will allow winter sports programming or the new football and volleyball season to take place.
That’s why he felt a need to speak out for activities he believes would allow kids to play the sports they love in the safest setting possible.
“We can say we’re going to take this opportunity to teach, and that’s great. But for the kids, for almost all of them, when their high school careers are done, they’re done,” Empting said. “They don’t get a chance to put the football pads on again. People who say it’s just a sport, I don’t think they really understand. It’s more than that. You love your teammates. Those opportunities with your teammates are being taken away, and that’s hard.”