How feasible is high school fall football?

On Tuesday, state officials approved high school football to be played this fall under specific guidelines. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Over the weekend, Gov. John Carney took a few minutes to watch a high school football game on ESPN.

The contest was being played in Alabama.

The governor had to admit he didn’t like what he saw as far as the teams following COVID-19 protocols was concerned.

“That’s not the way we’re going to propose to do it here in Delaware,” said Carney. “Very little mask-wearing among the athletes on the field, the coaches weren’t that compliant with mask wearing and spectators in the stands were not socially distant. Many of them wore masks but certainly not to the level necessary.”

Carney told that story on Tuesday afternoon just before he and state health officials announced that they would permit high school football to be played in Delaware this fall — under specific guidelines. Those restrictions are being implemented to help prevent the spread of the virus in communities.

Tuesday’s announcement came just a week after Carney said about football, “I don’t know how you do it safely.”

So while the change in guidelines no doubt gave the Delaware high school football world hope that games might still be played this fall, how feasible is it really?

For starters, programs around the state are at widely varying states of readiness. While some schools have been holding football workouts for several weeks, other coaches haven’t been with their players in person, as a group, since March because their district didn’t permit it.

St. Georges High coach John Wilson is the president of the Delaware Interscholastic Coaches Association. The Hawks have been working out a couple times a week for the last seven weeks.

“We figured if there was ever going to be a move to push fall sports forward, we want to be on that,” said Wilson. “We just want to advocate for our kids to have a chance to play football.

“We’ve been out conditioning and doing some things on the field. I’m very optimistic about that. I really think the positive part of that should be magnified — not what kids can’t do but what they are doing and progressing from there.

Under the present high school sports calendar, football won’t be played until next February. Delaware State News file photo

“It’s going to be harder for players who haven’t been doing much during the summer,” he added. “I feel bad for those coaches. They haven’t been around their kids for six months. … There’s a lot of people out there who do not feel prepared for this I’m sure.”

Then there’s the matter of masks.

Under the new state guidelines, players in high-intensity sports like football will be required to wear them when they play.

But who’s going to be in charge of making sure that all 22 players, wearing helmets on a big field — sometimes during night games — actually have their mouths and noses covered?

Will a play be stopped if a player isn’t wearing a mask? And if players feel like the guideline aren’t being strictly enforced, will they try to get an advantage by having their mask only around their neck of just pulled up to their chin?

Wilson said it has to be a “collective group” that enforces mask regulations — “between the coaches, the trainers, the referees.”

Of course, it’s fair to point out that, with the amount of money involved with football in the U.S., there’s no shortage of people trying to build a better mask. New versions of face coverings for athletes are coming out all the time.

“Look how far things have come in the past month,” said Wilson. “What will they be in the next month?”

Among the people Carney said he’s discussed the issue with is former high school football teammate Paul Schweizer, a longtime physical therapist in the state.

“When I first saw this first principle — everybody must wear a mask — I said, ‘There’s no way,’” said Carney. “I couldn’t wrap my head around how you could play football with a mask on.

“I talked to some of the football coaches and football people, including my good friend Paul Schweizer … and he was convinced that there were mechanisms they could use to protect the athletes.”

Masks are just the start of it, though. There is a long list of time-consuming protocols that schools will be expected to follow — like the constant cleaning of equipment and players supplying their own water.

Delaware high school football has been in limbo all summer.

The Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association’s August decision to postpone the start of the high school sports calendar until December led most coaches to start preparing for a football season beginning in February.

That doesn’t mean they stopped thinking about other possibilities, however.

Smyrna coach Mike Judy said DIFCA has been in contact with football people around the country to stay on top of what’s happening in other states.

“We all work together,” said Judy. “It’s been really good from that standpoint. We’ve had a plan ready to go, we’ve just been waiting for the right public health phase to try to present it and execute it.”

But the result of the governor’s change in football guidelines is to put the decision back in the DIAA’s hands. Carney said on Tuesday that he hopes the organization will look at its decision again.

The DIAA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee meets on Sept. 8 with the board of directors slated to meet on Sept. 10.

If changes are made to the sports calendar, the state Board of Education would have to sign off on them. Finally, it would probably come down to each individual school district board deciding when it wants its student-athletes to start playing.

“We just want to prepare to give them the opportunity,” said Wilson. “These are unique times. There’s going to be a lot of challenges. I think there’s going to be a lot of learning along the way.”