Douglas Fritz.jpg

Douglas Fritz

It is time for the TSSAA to reconsider its rule regarding football teams not being able to play a game because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Under current TSSAA guidelines, a regular- season region game becomes a win for playoff-seeding purposes if one team cannot play because of COVID-19. The team dealing with the virus does not receive a loss. If both teams face outbreaks and cannot play, it is considered a “no contest.”

But the rule opens the door for problems and controversy.

And with Greeneville’s announcement Tuesday that it has shut down football practice because of positive COVID-19 tests, the following considerations need to move to high priority.

As things stand right now, the TSSAA is hoping the 2020 season will be no different than any other. It can still start on time (Aug. 21), all teams could play their full allotment of games, there might be a full set of playoffs in every classification, and the BlueCross Bowl may take place the first week in December.

But it seems next to impossible it will actually play out that way.

MEMPHIS PROBLEMS

Whitehaven coach coach Rodney Saulsberry told The Commercial Appeal on Monday his team will not play until Sept. 18. That’s potentially a big deal. Whitehaven is a Class 6A powerhouse with two state titles and two state runner-up finishes over the last nine seasons. Also, Shelby County schools are currently unable to have contact while most of the state began full practices Monday.

A potentially large imbalance is developing.

As with everything in this pandemic environment, the Memphis issues and others like them are subject to change — literally any moment and in any direction, it seems.

And while what is happening in Memphis may seem to be a world away, it shouldn’t be viewed that way. In the effort to play high school football in the fall of 2020, we are all brothers — from inner-city Memphis to the mountains of Johnson County.

NO OUTBREAK GUIDANCE

There is no TSSAA mandate on when a team should not play in the situation of a COVID-19 outbreak. The organization should probably set at least a high bar. For example: If a team has 10 COVID-19 cases it is strongly advised not to play. Individual school systems could adjust that number lower, but there needs to be a statewide recommendation from the TSSAA.

As it stands now, one school system may view one positive case of COVID-19 as a reason to call off a Friday night game. Another school system might say five is too many. And yet another could say: If you can find 22 healthy athletes, go play.

Now look at the other side. For example: Dobyns-Bennett has five cases but decides to go ahead and play Science Hill. Will the Hilltoppers still want to play the Indians? Consider what happened recently in Major League Baseball, when the New York Yankees didn’t want to venture into the locker room in Philadelphia where the virus-ridden Miami Marlins had recently been.

The potential is set for D-B to “earn” a region win because Science Hill’s school officials don’t think it is safe to play a team that has experienced a recent outbreak.

And there is another potential problem. For example: D-B gets a “COVID-19 win” over Science Hill. Farragut then defeats D-B on the field. But the final standings show D-B with a record of 5-1 and Farragut at 4-1. Farragut defeated D-B on the field and has the same number of region losses as the Indians. But D-B would be region champions because of a “COVID-19 win.”

A POTENTIAL SOLUTION

Nobody knows what the football season is going to look like in 2020. But it is very hard to imagine every team playing a full schedule with no games being canceled. Case in point: Whitehaven.

What the TSSAA needs to strongly consider for the regular season is this: All games that cannot be played are “double no contest.” Nobody gets a win or a loss.

What is the point of giving a team a win because the other team can’t play? And what football team wants to win a region title in this manner?

Going back to Region 1-6A as an example: Dobyns-Bennett beats Bearden, Hardin Valley and Jefferson County. Before the Farragut game, the Indians get an outbreak and can’t play. Then the Indians beat Morristown West and Science Hill to finish 5-0 in league play. Farragut finishes 6-0.

Region champions? Farragut, says the TSSAA.

Now the Indians potentially face a second-round playoff game at Maryville. Farragut would be at home in round two and avoid Maryville until the quarterfinals. And the only reason Farragut gets this perceived advantage is because of a “COVID-19 win.”

In the aforementioned example, Farragut and Dobyns-Bennett would both be 5-0 would share the region crown.

TIEBREAKER FLAW

The TSSAA tiebreaker should be reviewed for the upcoming season. It rewards “greatest number of victories” overall as the first tiebreaker. In the aforementioned example, Farragut might be 9-1 with two “COVID wins” while Dobyns-Bennett could be 8-0. Farragut would win the tiebreaker despite having a lower winning percentage.

Tiebreakers Nos. 2 through 5 are also based on “greatest number of victories” scenarios, so they might not settle the issue in a fair manner.

That leaves us with tiebreaker No. 6: a coin flip. It isn’t a wonderful way to decide a football championship. But in 2020, it may be the best option.

Another option is having the two teams meet on the field Monday night of playoff week, using the TSSAA overtime procedure. But would it be worth the injury risk and extra COVID exposure heading into the playoffs?

Perhaps the TSSAA could put a disclaimer on its tiebreaker process for this season, stating steps one through five would become null if one team received any “COVID-19” wins.

UNCHARTED PATH

COVID-19 is a road nobody in this generation has ever walked. But we do have a weapon: flexibility. The TSSAA has already used this weapon numerous times and the season hasn’t started yet.

If the 2020 season starts and finishes, it will likely be much different than any we have ever witnessed. Hopefully it will long be remembered as the pandemic football season. That is the hope. Because if 2020 stands as an outlier, it means things are back to normal for 2021.