Twice a week, Christine Krempa drives from Johnstown to Albany to drop off her two daughters for practice with ADK Field Hockey, more than comfortable with the procedures the club has put in place to protect players and coaches from COVID-19.
Why then, Krempa wonders, can’t she implement similar procedures in her role as the field hockey coach at Johnstown High School, and host the summer league that’s played a vital role in building a program that finished as state runners-up in 2019?
“I just can’t do it,” Krempa said. “I can’t get on the field. There’s really no way around it. There’s no loophole.”
Krempa’s frustration is shared by many athletes, parents and coaches desperate for school teams to find some way to get on the field this summer.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been expected to announce this week whether the coronavirus transmission rate is low enough for schools across the state to reopen for in-person learning this fall, but, even then, the New York Public High School Athletic Association — acting on the recommendations of the association’s COVID-19 Task Force — has already pushed back the start date for fall sports from Aug. 24 to Sept. 21, with the potential of moving to a format of three condensed seasons that would see winter, fall and spring sports jammed into a shortened span of time that would start in January.
Meanwhile, many travel teams and recreation leagues for “low-risk” sports across the state have been operating since early July under Phase 4 of the state’s reopening guidelines, with some school facilities allowed to be used by private entities even as the normal summer slate of weight-room sessions and open gyms for high school sports has remained off-limits due to state guidelines.
The ensuing confusion — and resentment — from many parties was predictable.
“I’m all for safety,” Krempa said. “I understand the reasoning. . . . I just think it’s a little bit of a double standard that they’re letting other clubs, little leagues, youth soccer and travel this and that proceed, where I feel like I have a better vested interest in keeping those kids safe, because I want them to have a season. I don’t want someone to get sick or spread something.”
Some groups have taken to social media to voice their opinions.
Kevin Many, of Slate Hill, operates the Twitter account @LetThemPlay2020 on behalf of New Yorkers for Student Athletes, a group that also has a presence on Facebook and Instagram, and has spent the last month pleading that, as the state’s coronavirus numbers have been consistently low in recent weeks, something should be done to allow student-athletes to safely begin to work out with their high school teammates.
“New York’s really doing well compared to everywhere else,” Many said. “There’s travel teams out there playing left and right, with not a lot of social distancing going on, and one of the things we’re pushing is: Why can’t the kids at least get together and do conditioning? Do it spread out, social-distanced; they don’t have to use the locker room.”
When asked for comment, NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas referred to current guidelines from the state for the eventual reopening of schools, which states “Interscholastic athletics are not permitted at the time of publication and must only operate in accordance with forthcoming State-issued guidance.”
With the decision on the reopening of schools forthcoming, NYSPHSAA remains dependent on further state guidance for its next move. Zayas declined comment beyond referring to current guidelines, while multiple Section II coaches also declined comment for this report.
“We continue to wait for more guidance from the state as to what we can do to bring high school athletics back,” NYSPHSAA director of communications Chris Watson said. “Once we get that guidance, we’ll feel a lot better about knowing the differences and where we can go from there.”
LIABILITY VS. SAFETY
While coaches such as Krempa are confident they could provide a safe atmosphere for their athletes to get ready for the season, the travel sports vs. school sports quandary largely boils down to one issue: Liability.
“If a coach decided to be cavalier and take his team out and practice regardless of what the governor says — perhaps go to a town field or something — and something happens, then the school district is liable for that,” said Dr. Jim Wright, the associate director of the New York State Athletic Administrators Association and a member of the NYSPHSAA COVID-19 Task Force. “As a coach, you can’t assume the risk, because they’re indemnified. They’re not going to sue the coach; they’re going to sue the district.”
This is an issue that existed long before the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on sports, said Carla Pasquarelli, an athletic trainer at St. Mary’s Healthcare who serves as the trainer at Amsterdam High School and for the Amsterdam Mohawks, who returned to play this summer as a part of the four-team Independent Collegiate Baseball League.
“The job of the school is to keep the kids safe,” Pasquarelli said. “We don’t want to put anyone in a position where their safety’s at risk. I’m not saying that youth sports do, but there’s a different set of rules. Even before COVID, the travel teams did one thing and the school sports did another thing.”
Beyond liability, travel and club sports have certain advantages that school programs don’t. Players can arrive to games individually, rather than on crowded buses, and modifications to provide for social distancing can be made with less red tape.
“We don’t have the liabilities that the school does,” said Dave Fields, president of the Niskayuna Baseball League and a former assistant baseball coach at Colonie High School. “That makes sense to me. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, school sports are an extension of the education program, and that’s got problems right now. I understand why it’s the way it is.”
At the same time that Union College football coach Jeff Behrman was coming to grips with the cancellation of his 2020 season, he was also taking his son Brock — a rising junior at Niskayuna High School and one of the state’s top lacrosse players — to multiple showcase events.
While Jeff Behrman said Brock’s summer schedule hasn’t been as busy as a typical summer, it’s not due to a lack of confidence in health and safety procedures.
“I was confident with the way that the organizations and the programs were handling everything,” he said. “The teams followed those [protocols] and did what was right for the young athletes and their families.”
THE MENTAL TOLL
From the time the pandemic struck New York hard in March, schools were closed and the spring sports season was canceled, young athletes were cooped up at home for extended periods.
When the chance to play travel and rec sports opened up in July, it was seen by many as a godsend for those desperate to finally get back to playing sports at some level.
“It’s almost like a relief that we were able to do it,” Fields said.
While Niskayuna did cancel its rec program — which traditionally has around 400 players — after two polls of the league’s parents showed a substantial number uncomfortable with playing this summer, the league did start up its travel program for the year, with 108 players participating across multiple age groups.
The ability to play sports again provided a vital outlet for many young athletes who felt cramped for months.
It’s something Krempa saw firsthand at home. One of her daughters, she said, dealt with depression over the months of lockdown, over-exercising in an attempt to stay in shape and dropping weight she didn’t need to lose because she was “running like a mad woman.”
Krempa and her husband helped their daughter deal with the problem, but what really turned her mental state around was the start of ADK Field Hockey’s summer program.
“That’s when she had her outlet back to do something outside of these four walls,” Krempa said.
Jeff Behrman has seen the situation progress from the perspective of both a coach and as the parent of a high-level athlete.
At the same time Behrman was taking his son to his first events of the summer in July, he was also telling his Union football players that their 2020 season wouldn’t be taking place.
“I think once you get over the initial shock of ‘this is really happening,’ and then you step back and you understand that it’s the best thing to do, and we just have to continue moving forward,” Behrman said.
For athletes, coping with the loss or postponement of a season has been about maintaining a sense of optimism.
UAlbany football players were gutted last month when their 2020 season was — at the very least — postponed, but have tried to keep their spirits up knowing the potential of getting to play their season next spring.
“We are eventually going to play football at some point,” rising redshirt sophomore linebacker Joe Casale said during a conference call with reporters last month. “Knowing you’re going to play football is enough motivation for me to keep going.”
But there’s still some frustration, even for those who have been able to play this summer.
“I do see frustration in kids that are two- and three-sport athletes that usually are winding down right now,” Fields said. “They told us, ‘I can’t commit to baseball in August, because I have football.’ Well, now they don’t have football. They’re with us, but they’re frustrated that they’re not doing what they’d normally do.”
THE WAITING GAME
ADK Field Hockey is scheduled to wrap up its summer work this week, which normally would allow players a brief break before joining their school teams.
Not this year.
This year, if schools open and fall sports begin as currently planned on Sept. 21, that will mean a six-week break — a long gap even for those who did get to play at the club level this summer.
It’s going to take a toll, Krempa said, both on physical conditioning and mental health.
“If we can’t do anything, if the governor continues to have this moratorium on us and we have a season that starts on Sept. 21, my first game is Sept. 29,” she said. “I can’t get girls in game shape in eight days, and then play a condensed season of three games a week. It’s going to be tough.”
There are multiple options that have been floated.
Many’s group is championing the idea of allowing teams to begin conditioning work as soon as possible, but limited to small, socially-distanced groups until the official start date.
Wright’s proposal is different: Allow some of the lowest-risk, individual sports — like cross country, swimming, golf and tennis — to get their seasons started Sept. 21. Then, both the winter and the spring would be split into two sessions. In the winter, lower-risk sports like volleyball and gymnastics would start later in the fall semester, with basketball and wrestling then starting in January, followed by the remaining fall sports in March and spring sports in April under NYSPHSAA’s condensed season plan.
However the schedule is eventually decided, Pasquarelli said that from a health and safety perspective, it’s all about having an informed plan and sticking to it.
“It’s making sure that everybody’s following the current guidelines put forth by the CDC, put forth by the state, the school, and making sure that not only do the kids and parents understand, but that our coaches understand as well the importance of following the guidelines we have,” Pasquarelli said.
But, at this point, all that coaches like Krempa can do is wait.
“I just feel like I would be super vigilant if the state were to go ahead and say you can meet your kids one or two times a week,” she said. “I think, as coaches, we want to be able to get these kids back on the field, and not for selfish reasons.
“These kids need it now, for their mental health.”