Masks add new wrinkle to high school sports

DOVER — The way Dr. Bradley Bley saw it, state athletic officials had a choice to make.

They could either believe it was realistic for high school athletes to play games while staying six feet apart from each other.

Or the athletes could be required to wear masks all the time.

Watching some youth soccer games was all it took to confirm what Bley already thought.

“You can’t tell me that they’re not challenging for the ball and slide tackling and doing things that are outside the Governor’s regulations,” he told the DIAA board of directors on Thursday. “That puts it on our referees and officials to blow a whistle every time somebody gets close to each other.”

Furthermore, by state regulations, playing a sport like soccer without masks would also mean adhering to modified rules — no headers, no defensive walls and only the goalie allowed in the six-yard box, among other things.

“Me being a soccer player myself, I personally don’t think athletes will listen to not do direct contact,” Bley added. “You might as well be playing kickball out there.”

That thinking is just one reason that Delaware high school student-athletes will find themselves with a new piece of equipment if they play sports this fall.

Masks.

When the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association OK’d the return of high school sports this fall on Thursday, it did so with the stipulation that almost all the student-athletes would have to compete wearing face coverings.

That comes after the DIAA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee — or SMAC — made the recommendation at its own meeting earlier in the week. Masks are used to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

So while football players already knew they were going to be playing with face coverings — Governor John Carney mandated it the week before — the rest of fall sports athletes are now in that club, too.

(Volleyball players are being required to wear masks because the sport is played indoors. On the other hand, cross country runners won’t need masks because the sport can use a staggered start).

And the face covering requirement comes despite the fact that it’s not being mandated by the National Federation, which oversees high school sports in the U.S. The NCAA, however, did recommend masks in competition after a later study.

“I know it’s going to be difficult for our athletes to play with a mask,” said DIAA executive director Donna Polk. “It’s a tough situation. … We play without the mask and modified rules or we use masks and don’t modify the rules.”

Bley says he knows the mask rule isn’t going to be popular. But he said a lot of research was done before making the recommendation.

“We are the public face of sports and we have a responsibility to do it right,” said Bley, a DIAA board member and the group’s medical consultant. “We’re going to be looked at closely. I think we need to do it the right way.”

Choices, choices

John Wilson may know as much about athletic face coverings as anybody in the state.

As the president of the Delaware Interscholastic Football Coaches Association, the St. Georges coach has been researching masks for months.

Because of the big money involved in the NFL and college football, there is no shortage of new models coming out all the time.

There are cloth coverings that go directly over the player’s face and can even attach to the helmet. There are double-layer gaitors that can stretch over the helmet’s face guard.

There are plastic splash shields that fit into the face guard. Wilson sent an email to the state’s coaches with at least four different options.

All of them have pluses and minuses.

Some options cost as little as $8.95 while others can be as much as $25-28 each.

“We’re experimenting with different kinds,” said Wilson. “We don’t want to present only one option for coaches because of cost. That’s really the biggest thing. Things change daily through this whole thing. We want to see what works best for the protection of the kids.

“A lot of coaches, we’re just leaning on each other — giving feedback to each other — to see what works best.”

Clearly, the better the mask is, the more the players will buy into wearing them.

“You want something you can give to the masses,” said Wilson. “The kids have to understand that it’s a part of their uniform, like gloves or something like that.”

Without helmets, the masks that other fall-sports athletes will wear figure to be much simpler. The new rule stipulates only that the student-athlete has a suitable face covering over their nose and mouth.

There are no regulations about what the covering is made of.

Still, competing with face coverings will be a new experience for most athletes.

College athletes have been working out with masks on all summer. According to Bley, studies done by the U.S. military have shown that people wearing face coverings show a significant reduction in exercise capacity after 18 to 23 minutes of continuous exertion.

That’s why the DIAA’s SMAC board is also mandating breaks after at least every 20 minutes of game time. Players will be able to remove their masks for at least two minutes as long as they maintain a six-foot distance from others.

Wilson said some of his players were resistant when they first started wearing masks at practice.

“It’s kind of a mixed review,” he said. “Some kids are getting used to it. They want to pull them down.

“But we’ve gotten better. If you’re standing in line for a drill, they make sure they have them on. But they’re going to have to be to the point where it’s something they have on their face the whole time.”

Keeping covered

It’s probably a safe assumption that high school kids won’t like wearing masks while they’re playing.

And, at the moment, there’s no penalty for not wearing a mask in a game. The contest won’t be stopped if a player doesn’t have one on.

Of course, if there is a big enough issue, both the Governor and DIAA have the power to shut down sports.

But it seems inevitable that a player will make a big play with their mask down. Whether it was intentional or not, people on the other side will argue that the play shouldn’t count.

Sussex Central High principal Dr. Bradley Layfield, the DIAA board president, said it will be up to the adults — the coaches, athletic directors and school administrators — to make sure the rules are being followed.

After all, it’s the agreement they made for being able to play sports in the midst of a pandemic.

“If a player refuses (to wear a mask), then I think we are going to lean on our coaches to say, ‘If you want to play this game and be part of this team, then you’ve got to do it safely,’” said Layfield. “Referees are going to have enough to spot looking for the rules of the game that the coaches are going to have to take the onus.   

“As a principal, I’d have no problem shutting down a team if the coach was being cavalier and not enforcing that with their kids.”

The DIAA’s plan for fall sports still needs to be voted on by the state Board of Education at its next meeting on Thursday.

Even if approved, preseason practice won’t start until Sept. 28. The first games aren’t scheduled until Oct. 19.

Meanwhile, the DIAA’s sports medicine committee is planning to keep meeting every week for the time being. Clearly, the pandemic is a continually evolving situation.

A lot could still change before anyone takes the field for real. In the meantime, Delaware student-athletes are going to have to get used to wearing masks in games.

Bley remembers one parent’s comment after they asked their child if they were OK with wearing a mask while playing.

“The one mom said their kid responded, ‘I don’t care, as long as we get to play,’” he said.