Though the first faceoff — assuming faceoffs are allowed — is four months away, those associated with boys high school lacrosse look around and see other higher-COVID-19 risk sports like high school football postponed for the fall and wrestling under threat in the winter as the pandemic burns on.
“I’ve got two sons playing hockey. I coach basketball. I coach soccer. If they can happen, boys lacrosse can happen. I feel the frustration of football in the fall and wrestling now,” Foran boys lacrosse coach Brian Adkins said.
“We all want the kids to play. We don’t want April to come and we’re high-risk.”
Unique in the the sports guidance put out by the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH), which itself is adapted from the reopening guidance of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), boys and girls lacrosse have different risk classifications for transmitting respiratory particles: boys high, girls moderate.
That shouldn’t necessarily be surprising, said Dr. Michael Koester, chair of the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.
“We see boys and girls lacrosse being different sports. Frankly, that’s what I’ve always heard from lacrosse aficionados, that the only similarity between the sports is the name,” Koester said. “The boys sport has contact. That’s why they wear the gear, including head protection.”
Boys lacrosse permits bodychecking, and players wear helmets. Girls lacrosse has rules discouraging contact, and without helmets, there are fouls for encroaching on an imaginary sphere around a player’s head (called, maybe funny enough in this pandemic-sporting context, the “bubble”).
Connecticut on Nov. 19 suspended all non-collegiate amateur team sports as the state’s COVID-19 metrics rose. They’re now set to return Jan. 19, which was already the target date for winter high school sports to begin practice.
Although moderate-risk outdoor sports had gone on until Nov. 19 with limited modifications, higher-risk sports had been halted two weeks earlier. Even before that, DPH had recommended against higher-risk sport practice and competition, though they had been allowed since July under the state’s reopening rules.
“We were able to get through the summer season of lacrosse and the fall season in club without incident,” Adkins said. “The coaches wore masks. Refs wore masks. We had no issues.”
The NFHS’ categories are themselves modified from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee sports medicine recommendations. Lacrosse is not an Olympic sport; its national governing body is US Lacrosse, headquartered north of Baltimore.
The SMAC had to consider where lacrosse fit in consideration of where other sports had fallen.
“Everyone wants their sport classified a lower risk so it can be played,” said Lindsey Atkinson, director of sports and communications associate for the NFHS.
“Just because ‘lacrosse’ is in both sports — they are different sports. We need to examine how they’re played to determine the risk. We completely understand the question. We understand states have taken different approaches to it. We want them to be able to play.”
US Lacrosse has advocated for both girls and boys lacrosse to be classified as moderate-risk sports.
“While boys and girls lacrosse allow varying degrees of contact, US Lacrosse has concluded that these differences do not place boys at a greater risk of COVID-19 transmission than girls,” a Nov. 3 statement read.
“The US Lacrosse Sport Science & Safety committee has classified both versions of outdoor lacrosse as presenting a moderate risk for COVID-19 infection because both disciplines are played outdoors, the games are fast-moving, players don’t handle the ball with their bare hands, no equipment is shared and, even when athletes are within close proximity to one another, movement is constant. Additionally, infrequent periods of extended closeness can be easily eliminated through rule modifications.”
Data is still coming in about how sports plays into virus transmission, said the people interviewed for this report: Team-to-team transmission in competition seems low, but within teams might be a different story, and even there, there’s uncertainty whether it’s happening in training or hanging out afterward.
“Going into it, there were so many unknowns,” Atkinson said. “We have a very good grasp of classifying with regards to injury because of the data. When it comes to an airborne illness nobody had seen, back in April when we discussed it, that was a little different.”
The purpose of the NFHS’ document in April, Koester said, was to get youngsters active again as states went through their reopening phases in conjunction with state and local health departments.
Once fall came, every state governing body and health department handled things a little differently. In Koester’s home state of Oregon, for instance, high school athletics won’t begin until at least February. Others play on.
The NCAA in July initially classified both men’s and women’s lacrosse as high-contact-risk sports but changed both to intermediate-risk sports in November, citing “frequent, short-lived proximity among competitors during play.”
Koester admitted he isn’t a lacrosse expert, but he watched his son play for a couple of years.
“Those big boys around the goals do an awful lot of leaning on each other,” he said. “There’s not always a lot of movement, but there can be a lot of contact. I don’t see how the boys and girls sports can be considered the same sport when it comes to the amount of contact between them.”
In thoughts of reclassifying a sport, Connecticut’s governing body for high school athletics, the CIAC, was sent kind of in circles, executive director Glenn Lungarini said.
Discussing with the state Department of Public Health ways to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus in certain sports, DPH told the CIAC to go to the NFHS to see if such strategies would lead that body to reclassify a sport.
“DPH has relied on the expertise of the (NFHS) Sports Medicine Advisory Committee in determining risk categorization for various sports included in our guidance,” the department said in a statement through a spokesman. “At this time, we are not aware of any changes in the NFHS classifications for individual sports. If that changes, DPH can always reassess accordingly.”
The NFHS told the CIAC that it couldn’t reclassify a sport for a single state — Koester and Atkinson agreed that classifications weren’t likely to change for several reasons, that one among them — and urged that the CIAC have that talk with DPH.
Lungarini is more focused on strategies to allow such a sport to be played safely, if the state’s COVID-19 situation permits.
The CIAC never won DPH recommendation to play football in the fall. The plan since late September has been for a shortened football season, along with any winter sport that doesn’t complete a substantial season, in a March-April window. It’s yet uncertain how the delay to the winter season will affect that.
“In our conversations with DPH, the rationale for postponing football to later in the year was to give more time to investigate the effectiveness of mitigating strategies,” Lungarini said.
He’s optimistic that data will be coming in a month or so looking at the efficacy of face shields in football and perhaps hockey. There were concerns also about examining the long-term effects of COVID-19 and return-to-play considerations for athletes who’ve had the disease, as well as how spread happens in sports.
There is also the hope that vaccines to protect the most-vulnerable in the short run and better treatments in the long run will help blunt the pandemic’s impact, maybe inching the world a little closer to normal. But there’s much still be done to get there.
“I think (the statewide percentage of positive COVID-19 tests on Tuesday) was 8.6 percent,” Lungarini said. “If it’s 8.6 percent, we’re not playing anything.”