Coming off a school year like no other, New York State Public High School Athletic Association executive director Robert Zayas is heading into the upcoming academic year with a fresh sense of optimism.
Cautious optimism, yes, but optimism nonetheless.
After a full school year without state and regional championships, a constantly jumbled sports calendar, athletes in masks and few — if any — spectators in attendance due to restrictions brought on by the novel coronavius pandemic, Zayas said the NYSPHSAA is currently operating with the hope that the coming year will be going ahead with no restrictions in place.
“We just finished the most unprecedented school year in the history of our athletic association, that is almost 100 years old right now, but we’re embarking on the most anticipated school year,” Zayas said. “Looking at the big picture, I think what happened in the previous school year has just reiterated how important simply participating is. . . . Being able to participate in games and competitions is, and will always be, the most important aspect of what we provide.”
With the start of fall practices approaching, Zayas — who has been with the NYSPHSAA since 2012 — sat down to discuss a wide range of issues pertaining to high school sports with The Daily Gazette. (Answers have been edited for space.)
Question: From what the association went through, from March 2020 until now, what were those biggest lessons that you learned, and are there some practices that you can keep moving forward?
Answer: I think the lesson we learned was to take the information as it was readily available and make decisions based on that information. I think we did a very good job of not speculating or attempting to forecast too far into the future.
As far as some of those things that’ll stay with us, we are making a move to only go with digital ticketing for our state championships in the upcoming year. We’re also only going to have digital programs sold. That’s for a couple of different reasons. One, the digital ticketing will allow people to purchase their tickets in advance, and will avoid congregating at the front of the entrance. It’ll also allow us to control capacity, and then directly communicate with everyone that’s purchased a ticket in advance. I think those are some things that we’re looking at already and saying what we’ve learned over the course of the last year is going to be the catalyst for digital ticketing only at our events.
Q: At the NYSPHSAA Central Committee meeting last month, you committed to this year planning to be as normal as it can be. You mentioned not wanting to speculate too far into the future, but is the thought sitting in the back of your head of having to impose restrictions similar to last school year if COVID rates continue to rise?
A: I think it’s natural to be thinking about “what if?” but we don’t have any idea, nor do we have any clue, of what something could be. I think the best thing we could do at this point in time is simply plan as if everything’s going to be a “go.” Right now, as we sit here, there’s no COVID restrictions in place impacting interscholastic athletics, so that’s what we’re going to have to go off of. If and when restrictions are put into place by local or state entities, then we’ll go ahead and adopt those and abide by them, and then disseminate that guidance to our schools.
That’s the goal [to have a year as normal as possible], but it’s also knowing that if things go in a bad direction, things could drastically change. I try to stay positive and optimistic, and take the information as it is provided to us.
Q: One of the biggest things that came about when sports restarted and schools weren’t able to have fans in attendance was a huge spike in livestreaming of games. Is that something you’d like to see grow moving forward?
A: We have an agreement with a national organization, called the NFHS Network, so they have exclusive rights to all of our digital content for 10 years of state championships. I do think that’s added a whole other element of giving us the ability to be able to promote and highlight what the athletes are doing at the varsity level. I’m hoping it trickles down to modified, to junior varsity, to freshman as well, that we’re able to find a way to adequately stream those games, in addition to the varsity competition.
Our sections, other than Section I, all have a partnership with the NFHS Network. All schools have the ability to have two free cameras put into their school by the NFHS. Few people know about how the NFHS will come in and install two cameras — one in your gym, one in your football field or soccer field — free of charge. It’s a big benefit that we’re continuing to promote.
Q: Also at the Central Committee meeting, you broached the subject of NIL [Name, Image and Likeness] issues regarding high school athletes. That’s obviously a big hot-button issue in amateur sports right now, nationally. Where do you see that going at the high school level?
A: I think that, from what we’re proposing to our board — we discussed it last week, we’ll hopefully be taking action on the proposal that I created on Oct. 20 — what we would do is say that students cannot capitalize on their athletic fame in affiliation with their school team, their school section or the state high school athletic association. A student would be able to capitalize on their athletic fame, but unaffiliated with their school team, section or state association.
Q: So, for example, a student-athlete would be able to make up t-shirts and sell them on their own?
A: They can, but it can’t be affiliated with the school. It can’t have the school name on it, they can’t utilize the school logo, they can’t use the state athletic association logos that are copyrighted, obviously. I think that since July 1, when the NCAA lifted their NIL rule, it’s become difficult to differentiate between capitalizing on your athletic fame and being a social media influencer. Because there’s a lot of student-athletes that have a lot of followers on social media platforms that have nothing to do with their athletic ability; but by their athletic ability, does that negatively impact their ability to have social media influence? I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between the two. I think that it’s in the best interest of the association and our member schools — and the student-athletes — if we just say, ‘You can do what you do, but you can’t be affiliated with the schools.’ California already has that bylaw, and we would be the second state to adopt something like that.
One of the examples I’ve been using is that a student in the seventh or eighth grade has 500,000 followers on TikTok, they haven’t even started playing high school sports, and now all of a sudden enters their freshman or sophomore year with 500,000 on TikTok, and now their basketball team wins a state championship and they’re one of the best players, the leading scorer. How do we say that any of those TikTok followers had anything to do with their athletic ability, because now as a sophomore they have a million followers? I think it’s in the best interest of everyone involved to say, ‘You can’t be affiliated with your school.’ If you as an individual, along with your parents or guardians, want to make that decision to enter into some kind of contract, unaffiliated from your school, then that’s up to you to make that decision.
Q: Is there going to be a more satisfying day this school year than the first day of fall sports practice on Aug. 23?
A: For me, both professionally and personally — my daughter is entering her freshman year, she’s going to be running cross country — Aug. 23 will be a big day in our house. Not just from a professional standpoint, but also a personal one.
Q: For months and months, you ended up being the bearer of bad news about the state of high school sports. Did frustration set in?
A: It was a lot of months of bad news. I remember when we were sitting in our conference room and we had a press release ready to go that we were going to move forward with basketball regionals that weekend, we weren’t going to have fans, and we were going to go ahead with the ice hockey and bowling state championships. That was about 1 in the afternoon, and at around 1:15 as we were getting ready to release that press release making that statement, the NCAA came out and canceled March Madness. Then something happened with state officials, and within the hour we went from talking about hosting state events and regionals to canceling the state events and regionals.
It was a challenging year, on many levels, for many people. You had to be very patient, very cautious. I fully realize that what we do in this office impacts 600,000 student-athletes. We have to be very cautious and very calculated with what information we’re putting out. We have to be very strategic, because we don’t ever want to put any information out that isn’t factual or is going to create more confusion.
Q: Obviously, a lot of decisions on spectators, masks and other restrictions will still come down to individual localities and districts.
A: Right now, that’s what’s happening. We’ll just take the information as it’s given to us.
I don’t know that they’ll ever truly return to the way we remember them to be, but I do think there’s a renewed sense of importance and a new sense of value that’s placed upon simply participating. We’re not going to take those things for granted like we maybe did in the past.
Q: With no state championships since March 2020, how satisfying will it be to return to those events in November?
A: It’ll be special. It’ll be special in new ways. We’ll always remember that 2020-21 school year as something that we had to overcome. It was different, and it was challenging, and there were obstacles, but we overcame and we persevered. I think we’re better off as a result of them.
It’s that and just giving schools the ability to host sports in a way that is more beneficial to kids. I think when we get to that point, that’s going to be the most satisfying thing, that through all these issues and obstacles and adversity, that schools will have the ability to provide those participation opportunities to their student-athletes.
Hopefully, we get to the point where we’re not doing the COVID testing, and the screening, and the capacity limitations, and the mask wearing, and the sanitizing. Those types of things, although some form or fashion may be with us for a while, but we’ll get back to what we do best, which is provide those participation opportunities.
Q: Considering the ever-changing situation during the pandemic, how important has it been to make sure you’re communicating clearly with the public?
A: Any time we can effectively communicate with the general public, that’s to our benefit and to the benefit of our schools. Last year, it just reiterated how critical that is to make sure that we have a good crisis communications plan in place, that we have a strategy we can use to communicate effectively with the media, with our schools and with the general public.
We’re launching a brand-new website this fall, which is exciting. . . . That’ll be exciting as well, to unveil that website. We needed a refresh. We listened an awful lot to how people navigate the website, in terms of a user friendly experience. I think we’re always looking to improve that.