The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Masks are divisive in high school basketball, but players and coaches have accepted the rules

Yorktown's Brandon Warner heads to the basket around Hayfield's Braylon Wheeler — both donning masks — in their season opener Dec. 22. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Since March 12, the day the Virginia High School League canceled the remaining state basketball finals, many players and coaches vowed they just wanted to play again — whatever it took, whenever it happened, however it looked.

They would postpone the start date. They would settle for fewer games. They would stay local. Anything to play.

The beginning of this delayed, abbreviated, coronavirus-affected basketball season came with one more condition: Players and coaches throughout Northern Virginia would have to wear masks for practices and games, by virtue of a rule set by Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties.

So the first games have been played with a reminder of what has become a year-long, nationwide and highly political debate. If it’s a condition for playing basketball at all, coaches polled around Northern Virginia seem happy to oblige.

“Anytime I’m ready to throw my hands in the air and say, ‘This is nuts,’ ” Potomac Coach Keith Honore said, “I remember it beats the alternative.”

On Dec. 10, when Gov. Ralph Northam (D) issued an expanded mask mandate, the VHSL announced it would uphold recommendations from the Virginia Department of Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics and require players to wear masks in all sports except gymnastics, wrestling and swimming.

On Dec. 14, the VHSL rescinded that rule, instead dictating that masks were “strongly encouraged but not required.” But soon thereafter, the school districts in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties intimated to their schools that players would, after all, have to wear masks in practices and games.

“The VHSL is kind of like the baseline — they set the baseline standard for everyone to follow,” said Derek Farrey, the supervisor of high school athletics in Loudoun County. “As a local school division, we can’t be less restrictive, but we can be more restrictive.”

Over the past two weeks, Virginia high school basketball has moved forward with masks, largely out of a desire to see it move forward at all. What started as a point of contention — Farrey noted that masks are “obviously a sensitive subject” and acknowledged hearing concerns from a couple of parents — has become a routine part of the game.

At first, the requirement of masks during strenuous exercise worried some. Now the mask has become such a fixture that, during a recent game, Washington-Liberty Coach Bobby Dobson said one player’s mask came off in a tie-up and every player looked at him in awe — “Like, ‘Oh, my gosh, the mask is off.’ ”

Through two weeks of basketball, the masks appear to fall somewhere between a non-factor and a burden. Players sometimes lower their masks when they check out of the game to take a few extra gasps of air. South County senior Andre Speight said he doesn’t usually notice the mask but does have trouble breathing after consecutive fast breaks.

“At first, I didn’t think it was going to be that bad, but I was actually surprised that it’s kind of hard to breathe,” he said.

A half-dozen coaches sampled agreed masks are far from ideal, but each eagerly complied, given that it was the ticket to holding games.

“It’s a little bit difficult for them to breathe consistently, but it’s something they’re trying to work at,” South County boys’ coach Mike Robinson said. “They know if it’s something to help them get through this season, they’re willing to do it.”

“It’s not something that I agree with or that I think we agree with as a team, but I really think that this team would play in high heels if they were told to,” Loudoun Valley girls’ coach Bill Reynolds said. “They just want to play.”

Reynolds said he objects to the mask requirement out of concerns about players having trouble breathing but that his team hasn’t had any such problems. He added that his players “haven’t complained one time about wearing a mask.”

Some coaches questioned the consistency of requiring masks to reduce airborne transmission but still holding games that involve players holding and bumping one another. The school districts have advocated for any mitigation strategy that makes a difference at the height of the pandemic.

The operative phrase from the Virginia Department of Health reads, “During times of substantial COVID-19 activity VDH strongly advises athletes to wear masks at all times during group training, competition, and on the sidelines.” The VHSL chose to adhere to the loose wording of “strongly advises”; the local counties adopted the more cautious interpretation.

For now, practicing in masks requires obvious adjustment. Honore has urged his players to lower their masks if they have trouble breathing. He also spoke with college coaches about which masks would help in that regard.

Some coaches tried expensive Under Armour and Dri-Fit masks before finding that blue surgical masks were best. Speight said he had serious trouble with the surgical masks and opted for a looser option.

In some cases, masks can affect the way the game is played. South Lakes boys’ coach Mike Desmond said his team hasn’t struggled with the masks in practice or games, but at Washington-Liberty, Dobson has kept players in for only three- to four-minute spurts, cycling through 15 bodies. Some teams have slowed the tempo to keep players fresh.

The other option is to rush to the opposite extreme, running the opponent to the brink in the early going. Yes, the thought of using a safety measure as a strategic advantage has been broached.

Even with no clear penalty for inconsistent mask use, teams have mostly complied, coaches say. Farrey said referees aren’t the “mask police” — because the National Federation of State High School Associations has no mask mandate, the mask isn’t part of the uniform. But coaches police players, and administrators police coaches.

“I know it’s not ideal for anyone,” Farrey said. “I think people understand it and know this is the only way to do it if you want to do it.”