The state’s high school athletic association is reviewing policies for 2021-2023. A group of Southborough and Northborough parents are asking to incorporate student safety as an important factor. It’s a proposal that is meeting resistance, though (currently) without explanation.
In 2020, it would be natural to assume “student safety” refers to Covid safety measures. In fact, requested policy changes pre-date the pandemic and revolve around field conditions. One of the parents explains that she got involved after games were held in weather that contributed to multiple students getting injured on the same day.
Southborough’s Lisa Dunderdale explained that she and the other four parents all have experienced having a child injured through school athletics. They also witnessed poor field conditions and questioned decisions made by the adults who decide game play or sportsmanship on the field.
In trying to understand how decisions to play were made, Dunderdale learned that schools’ athletic departments mainly defer to MIAA guidelines. She asserted some of those rules are ambiguous.
Dunderdale is one of five parents of students/alumni asking the MIAA to codify that student safety, including considering the safety conditions of the fields, must be a factor in determining whether or not to cancel a game.
While the origin of Dunderdale’s interest was personal, she no longer has a child in high school. Now, her interest is in helping stop avoidable injuries for current and future student athletes. In trying to work with the NSBORO District and MIAA she has found that change is slow. She posited that things often don’t change since parents move on when their students graduate and incidents end up quickly forgotten.
Dunderdale stressed to me that injured- athletes are affected both physically and emotionally when they can no longer play and be as socially active in their school community. (That’s a point that should be clear to proponents of high school athletics who have been pushing for athletics during a pandemic, making similar arguments about students’ emotional welfare.)
Yet, so far, MIAA committees reviewing rule changes have shown resistance.
Rule changes were voted on by 20 committees (17 specific sports and 3 administrative.) Most of the proposed changes were rejected by almost all of the committees. Only one received support from close to half of the committees, with more voting against.* So far, no data has been shared with proponents explaining the reasons given by committees for their decisions.
Those votes were just a preliminary step in the MIAA’s decision process. The final decision will be made in the spring.
Below is an overview of the four rule changes proposed by Northborough-Southborough parents, Lisa Dunderdale, Michael Hartnett, Gretchen Hartnett, Theresa Lee, and Anupama Sehgal. (You can view the full text in this pdf.**) I included the votes cast in the first round of the decision process.
1. Coaches Code of Ethics
The current rule states “Each high school coach is first a TEACHER.” . . . “Every student-athlete should be treated as though they were the coach’s own children. Their welfare must be uppermost at all times”.
The proposal would have added a ninth item to a list of guidelines, stating:
A coach shall promote and advocate for the health and safety of the student athletes at all times, above all other factors.
Committee votes: 9 approved, 10 denied, 1 tied
4. Providing a Safe Environment for Regular Season Contests – New Rule
32.1- The Athletic Director is responsible for site safety during the regular season contests: determining the safety of the site for home and visiting student-athletes and fans; preparing the site for competition; ensuring emergency procedures are reviewed with visiting coaches and officials prior to the start of a contest; must have an AED on-site (and accessible) or with their medical provider for all athletic events; report any unusual incidences and all injuries.
The intro is followed by four subsections defining rules for postponement, including that host schools’ administrator/Athletic Director (not coaches) should determine if weather dictates cancellation, and that field conditions and student health and welfare are considerations.
The MIAA handbook clearly strives to include the student-athlete’s personal safety as a high priority, including sections on “Thunder/Lightening”, “Blood Borne Pathogens”, “Medical Emergency Response”, “Missing/Damaged organs”, “Concussions”, and ‘Drug/Alcohol/Tobacco” but doesn’t have a policy for site safety guidelines and protocols to help mitigate the risk of injuries for the student-athletes during the regular season. By creating this section with guidance from existing MIAA policies for Tournaments, the 11/18/2020 6 adults responsible for conducting secondary school sports will be aware of each other’s roles in making decisions and working together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the student athletes.
Committee votes: 1 approved, 18 denied, 1 tied
44. Part VIII, Rule 92: Game Officials – Policies and Procedure
The Game Officials Committee shall establish official’s fees for MIAA sponsored tournament competition.
The Officials have charge of the game from the opening whistle on, and have the responsibility to determine the safety of the field/court/or location of athletic contest – and have the authority to postpone the game, or delay the contest until such time as the location is considered safe for play. Officials will be guided by the National Federation rules for the year in determining whether or not the game should be stopped. (Example: Playing conditions are unfair or dangerous for players, darkness, etc.) Referees would notify both head coaches of the decision, and their decisions would not be subject to negotiation.
This specifically states officials have the authority after the start of a contest to determine if a contest needs to be postponed, delayed, or stopped due to unsafe conditions and it would be logical for it to follow rule 92.16 Postponement and Forfeiture. The added rule identifies the role of officials and allows for all responsible adults who conduct secondary school sports to work together for the safety of the student-athlete.
Committee votes: 19 denied, 1 tied
45. Part IX, Rule 99: Tournament Administration and Accountability
Insert the bolded text below:
The following must be the considerations for postponing a tournament activity: Health and welfare of the student-athletes; conditions of the field/court or location of the athletic contest; comfort and safety of the fans; travel conditions for participants and fans; alternative scheduling options; and financial implications.
The condition of a field /court and location safety is a consideration for postponing a tournament and regular season contest.
Committee votes: 19 denied, 1 tied
Decision rationale and process
Dunderdale told me that when she asked an MIAA rep for the reasoning behind the votes, she was told that he couldn’t capture those conversations. However, the committee’s forms indicate they are meant to provide rationale for each vote. (I’ll be following up and let you know if I am able to get that to share.)
The next stage in the decision process is for MIAA to forward packets with the committees’ votes to members of the Massachusetts Secondary School Athletic Directors Association. The MSSADA will make its own vote by February 1st.
Next up will be the MIAA District Athletic Committees, with a vote due by March 1st. Then, the MIAA Board of Directors will “act on proposals” by May 15th. Finally, The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Council will make the final decisions by June 1st.
*Within each of the MIAA committee, votes were split on each proposal. While committee decisions aere almost universally against the changes, about 20% votes cast were in favor. Meanwhile, the first proposal had votes closer in keeping with the committee decision outcomes (43% in favor and 51% against).
**The 8 page pdf I shared above only includes pages relevant to changes proposed by Northborough-Southborough parents. For the full 52 packet including all of the rule changes proposed this year, click here.)