“We thought we had our i’s dotted and t’s crossed, but then it came along that there were concerns we may be a little bit early doing that,” AAU President Roger Goudy said. “Not for a second did anybody think it was unsafe. But if it was questionable, then it just wasn’t worth doing it. I would never be able to live with myself if anybody got sick as a result of something we did.”
Youth sports in the age of the coronavirus is a murky swamp of questions with no simple answers. As states start relaxing restrictions, many leagues and organizers are optimistic kids will be playing games and participating in organized activities soon.
“Quite frankly, when covid-19 first occurred, I thought youth sports would be one of the last things to come back,” said Wayne Moss, executive director of the National Council for Youth Sports. “As things are progressing, it appears things could happen a lot quicker than perhaps we’d all anticipated.”
But like the AAU, organizations are navigating hurdles and hitting roadblocks, most finding that plotting a return-to-play path is not easy. What do evolving local regulations permit? Do the rule book and gameplay need to be altered? What’s the legal liability and what happens if someone associated with a team or league tests positive? And perhaps most pressing: Will volunteers, game officials, coaches and players even want to come back this soon?
Youth sports is a $19 billion industry in this country, according to some estimates, and the pandemic is wreaking major economic damage. The challenges mirror some of the issues that have slowed the professional sports leagues’ plans to resume play, but the organizers generally lack deep pockets, have no centralized governance, face an even more dire financial forecast and court a giant population of participants that is both eager for an athletic outlet but also fears returning to action so soon.
“There’s this tension out there right now,” said Tom Farrey, director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, which has been holding webinars and discussions on the topic. “Many parents are concerned about coming back. But the youth sports industry is itching to get it going again, in part because it’s their business. They have mortgages to pay.”
While many league organizers are still sorting out plans and waiting for local governments to act, a youth baseball tournament in Missouri staged games this month, and many other leagues and teams plan to begin practice in the coming weeks.
“The idea that we’d return to youth sports before we’ve even returned to schools is surprising,” said Lauren Sauer, director of operations with the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response. “There’s obviously a definite benefit to kids returning to sports and activity — the bonding, the exercise, the impact on mental health. That being said, sports creates, to varying degrees, environments in which you’re more likely to have exposures.”
But as Goudy discovered, even exercising all available safety measures isn’t going to make everyone comfortable. This month, in a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, two-thirds of Americans said they expect gatherings of 10 or more people won’t be safe until at least the end of July. That includes 24 percent who thought it would take until at least 2021 for them to be safe.
Goudy’s organization has been around since 1888, surviving wars, depressions and past pandemics. It serves 700,000 young athletes across 41 sports, and summer is supposed to be its busiest time of tournaments, travel games and league play.
“We’re aware we’re going to lose a lot of teams at a lot of our events,” Goudy said. “We get that. The thing I feel comfortable about: You don’t have to come to our event. It’s strictly voluntary. It’s not like public education. If you want to come, you come. It still goes back to personal choice.”
What are the rules?
Even as states loosen regulations — many are using a phased-in approach, allowing business and activities to slowly resume — public health experts say the coronavirus will continue to pose a threat, particularly where large groups gather. That complicates matters for those who want to open their fields while assuring parents it’s safe to do so.
Leagues and event organizers have been busy formulating return-to-play guidelines to put proper safeguards in place. But with no centralized organizing body, there is no universal blueprint. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued general guidance that it carefully calls “considerations,” but most leagues and organizations are either creating their own guidelines or looking to regional or national governing bodies for guidance — and the suggestions vary widely.
“The thing that I’m concerned about is that there will be organizations that will return to play without any particular considerations just because they’re eager to get out there,” Moss said.
Little League, the world’s largest youth sports organization, with around 6,000 baseball and softball leagues serving 1.8 million children in the United States alone, initially suspended play in March and eventually had to cancel its premier event, the Little League World Series. Still, it remains hopeful that leagues will be able to adjust their calendars and give kids the opportunity to play out their seasons, even if it means scheduling games into the fall.
On Wednesday, it issued its mitigation guidelines, a 42-page manual that covers everything from league finances to team snacks to game play. Among the virus-related tweaks: High-fives and fist bumps are off limits; masks and gloves are encouraged for coaches and umpires; players should be spaced six feet apart in the dugouts; sunflower seeds, gum and spitting are not allowed; and umpires can call balls and strikes from behind the pitcher’s mound instead of behind the plate.
“Our hope is this provides some guidance for the next several months,” said Pat Wilson, Little League’s senior vice president of operations. “But one thing we acknowledge is that we may have to evolve them as time goes on. We’ll continue to do that. Some things may not be necessary, and some things will vary from state to state. We can’t predict the future.”
The U.S. Specialty Sports Association, one of the nation’s largest youth sports providers, was among the first to issue return-to-play guidelines. Its May 1 memo called for expanding dugouts in baseball; removing soccer players who spit on the field; and a parent-player ratio of 1-1 mandated for some sports, with spectators discouraged from attending others and encouraged to wear face masks at most times. The organization, which is hosting a baseball tournament for 70 youth teams this weekend in Viera, Fla., was the subject of an Aspen Institute story this week that probed whether it is staging events too soon and whether its guidelines, written by the organization’s individual sports directors, are sufficient.
Declining to comment specifically on the article, USSSA chief executive Donny DeDonatis III said in an email that the “health and safety of our athletes, coaches, family members and other supporters is USSSA’s No. 1 priority.”
On Friday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) lifted all restrictions on youth sports, allowing organized activities for children to resume effective immediately.
“We trust parents to be able to make decisions in conjunction with physicians and community leaders and coaches,” he said.
Organizers make clear that leagues first should adhere to the safety rules and regulations of local and state governments, which creates a mishmash of standards. In Texas, for example, some leagues can begin practicing next week. Other places might be looking at a summer without any organized games at all.
“Among the things that truly make me the most nervous: People will look for venues,” Sauer said. “They’ll find a town where you’re allowed to return to sporting events — and let’s say it’s just over a state line — so they’ll put a travel event there instead of their own town. The virus is not going to respect state borders.”
Triple Crown Sports is a Colorado-based company that stages 115 events each year in 35 states. Keri King, its chief executive, said right now “each day feels like a new storm inside of a crisis.” He’s trying to reschedule tournaments and running into a web of regulations that vary by community and change often.
A planned June baseball tournament in Steamboat Springs, Colo., was canceled this week after a community outcry that included a petition with 2,500 signatures. Still, King is moving forward with a softball tournament next weekend in Oklahoma City, where he said the community “is welcoming us with open arms.”
“Everyone has a risk-reward balance to consider,” he said. “What you end up having is a disjointed effort where every person must make the best decision for themselves. For us, if we put out a product that gets people sick, we won’t have business in the future. So it’s critical that if we do play, it’s done with safety protocols.”
Many leagues, even in the absence of formal guidelines, are eager to restart. While most see sports as an important summertime outlet, there are also financial considerations. King said he has had to lay off 15 percent of his staff, furlough another 25 percent and reduce pay and hours for the rest.
Most youth sports organizations rely on registration fees for funding, which means they have no revenue if they aren’t running games and practices. Many youth sports organizations banded together to form the PLAY Coalition, which now numbers around 3,500 programs of all sizes. Its steering committee circulated a letter to lawmakers last month requesting $8.5 billion in relief to help youth sports weather this crisis.
“We all began comparing notes and saying, ‘Oh, wow, this is a very fragmented industry,’ ” said Jeremy Goldberg, a member of the coalition’s steering committee and president of LeagueApps, a technology company in the space. “It’s a void of any kind of real leadership. People are trying to do things on their own, and what’s happening in Washington was disconnected from what’s happening on the ground.”
The result was a House bill introduced last week by Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) that calls for a relief fund to aid youth sports organizations and tax credits for families to cover sports-related costs.
A simpler future?
Youth sports organizers have been searching for ways to resume activities. Some intend to focus on small groups and practices, and many have been taking advantage of virtual settings.
The Aspen Institute’s Farrey said organizations might find that formal game play isn’t the best way to resume activities; coaches instead could run drills and practices in ways that maintain social distancing.
“Do we have to dive right back into games and tournaments? I don’t think we do,” he said. “Part of the problem is we’ve equated youth sports in this country to organized games. What kids mostly want out of the sports experience is to be with their teammates in some form and to have an opportunity to get better. They can get a lot of that from a thoughtfully structured practice.”
Many are counting on the crisis to spur some fundamental changes to the youth sports landscape — shuttering some smaller operations, upending the high-priced world of travel tournaments, heightening the focus on health and safety, and perhaps shifting the emphasis from high-end clubs to volunteer-based community organizations.
For now, even as leagues, camps and tournaments are racing to return to play, they’re still mired in varying degree of uncertainty. The AAU rescheduled its Junior National Volleyball Championships for July, hoping that parents, coaches and teams will feel more comfortable traveling to Orlando one month later.
“We’re trying to do what we feel is the right thing for kids and for our volunteers,” said Goudy, the AAU president. “It’s just seemed at times like no matter who you talk to, there are different stories being spread out there about the coronavirus itself and what states, counties and cities are doing. It’s been a challenge. But we’ll just keep trying to work with those people who are in the know because we’re not health experts. We know how to run events.”