As we embark on a season many thought impossible, Mississippi High School Athletics and Activities Executive Director Don Hinton recently sat down to answer some burning questions regarding the 2020 high school football season and beyond. Here’s that conversation.
We know you received calls, e-mails and advice from Mississippians everywhere on whether the MHSAA should or should not be playing sports this fall. What seemed to be the consensus from those who expressed their opinions?
The overwhelming consensus was and is to provide students opportunities to participate in sports and activities during the 2020-21 school year. After a difficult period when interscholastic competition was shut down, the intrinsic values of student participation in extracurricular activities seem more important than ever. The responsibility of the MHSAA is to balance giving young people opportunities to participate while also making sure those opportunities are as safe as possible.
What is your reaction to school districts who’ve canceled fall sports due to the virus and the obstacles those districts could face trying to play during a pandemic?
We believe all school districts are important and unique. Any decisions made concerning participation in sports and activities are respected by our office. School administrators are faced with many difficult and complicated decisions concerning their particular circumstances and the effect COVID-19 has on their schools and communities. The MHSAA will continue to work with all member schools to help them in any way.
We know the MHSAA has taken steps to limit student-athletes’ exposure to COVID-19, but how much confidence do you have that outbreaks will be prevented or at least limited by on-field guidelines and 25-percent capacity restrictions for fans?
The MHSAA continues to work with experienced national and local health professionals and organizations to minimize the risks involved with competitions among our member schools. School personnel care greatly about their students and communities. They are effectively strategizing and implementing their district’s rules and regulations for sports teams, activity programs and campus facilities. The Mississippi State Department of Health and local school district approved guidelines were created and put in place for mitigation purposes following positive tests for individuals and groups if an outbreak occurs. There are teams of medical experts and school leaders who have spent endless hours working to make high school sports and activities as safe as possible. We are confident those efforts are making a positive difference.
How worried are you about games being canceled as we move through the season? Will the season still be considered a success if we crown state champions who have three or four wins by forfeit?
A top priority of our state association office and MHSAA member school administrators is to give students, student-athletes, activity directors and coaches an opportunity to participate in and lead these activities. This is why high school and middle school education-based interscholastic sports exist. If postseason competition and championship play can happen at the end of each sport season, student participation for the 2020-21 school year will be considered a success under very challenging circumstances.
Was there any point during the summer when you thought there was a very real chance we wouldn’t have any fall sports?
Absolutely. I think we all did. Our summer was filled with uncertainties and day-to-day unanswered questions concerning COVID-19 and the effect this virus was having on our school’s sports and activities. Again, the well-being of our students is the top concern for the MHSAA and officials around the state. We did our best to remain cautiously optimistic and continued to formulate contingency plans and schedules for resuming sports under a variety of what-if scenarios. I know all state associations from across the country have been doing the same thing since last spring.
I know it’s a good ways out, but it’s worth asking now: What is the timeline for deciding how to best conduct a basketball season? With it being an indoor sport, doesn’t that put players, coaches and spectators at a higher risk than for outdoor sports?
Guidelines are in place for competition between schools at indoor venues. Volleyball and swimming are the two indoor sports on the MHSAA calendar. Both appear to be moving forward safely under the current COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. We will continue to learn from our fall indoor sports programs and, if necessary, add to or adjust NFHS and MHSAA safety procedures and existing guidelines for indoor sports and activities. Basketball is considered high risk as a contact sport played indoors. The evolving safety rules and guidelines will reflect those considerations.
If you had it to do over again, would you change anything to this point about how the MHSAA has navigated its way through this unprecedented period?
Our office is continuously looking back and looking ahead to make MHSAA activities and athletics as safe as possible for students and schools in our state. It’s like everything else: Figuring out what you need to fix or adjust while developin ways to improve in the future. We’re still somewhat early in the process of dealing with this pandemic as it relates to interscholastic sports and activities. We will all know a lot more about the decisions that were made as we move through the next few months
Would you consider this off-season the biggest challenge of your career?
Each year we are faced with challenges to navigate and solve, each one creating opportunities for our leaders to lead and make a positive difference for students in our great state. COVID-19 has been an enormous challenge for all of us. I played high school sports, coached high school sports and was a high school administrator. I know how much athletics and activities mean to the young people in our state. As I’ve said, we are doing everything we can in very unique and challenging circumstances to provide those opportunities in the safest manner possible.