Courtesy of Carson Arkay

As cases of COVID-19 continue to increase across the United States, the debate rages on as to whether athletes should be allowed to compete in a game deemed very high risk for coronavirus transmission — football. 

With the Big Ten’s lively opening weekend marred by COVID-19 positives for Wisconsin, sports and news media alike were once again saturated with discourse involving the recklessness of collegiate athletes competing in a high contact sport during a worldwide pandemic. Yet, for all the attention the media has paid to college sports in the last few months, the same cannot be said for the attention received by the educational institutions a tier below — high schools. 

Back in March, when COVID-19 began its sweep across America, most states had no choice but to cancel basketball championships along with the entirety of the spring athletic season. Since then, those same state governing bodies have grappled with ways to pursue fall sports. By the end of August, it appeared that close to 35 states had a plan in place to carry out some form of a competitive football program before 2021. However, in early September, one of those states reversed course, cancelling all of high school football for the fall. That state happened to be Connecticut and the emerging repercussions appear to have escaped the spotlight.

At the start of the summer, the fate of Connecticut high school football was in the hands of two bodies, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and the Department of Public Health. Their early strategy was quite simple: play the waiting game by monitoring the state’s daily COVID-19 data over the course of the next few months and make a final call right before school was set to begin. 

As June turned to July, and July to August, the CIAC and DPH patiently waited to play their hand. New Haven, however, wanted no part in this wait-and-see policy. This was made clear on Aug. 14, when the New Haven Health Department indefinitely canceled all New Haven sports that involved any kind of physical contact for the coming fall semester — football included. This meant that even if the CIAC and DPH were to rule in favor of playing football in the fall, New Haven athletes would collectively be watching from home.

Twelve days later, this scenario for New Haven became a reality. Despite the DPH’s push to postpone football until the spring, it was ultimately the CIAC that had the final say as to whether high school football would return in the fall. On Aug. 26, the CIAC confirmed high schools would have a fall football season. 

A New Haven Perspective

John Acquavita, head coach of New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School football team, recalled how the aftermath of the CIAC’s decision created shock waves that reverberated well past city lines.

“The health director of the city [of] New Haven said that the [state board’s decision] doesn’t matter, we’re not playing sports in the fall in New Haven,” Acquavita said. “So, New Haven kids were saying to themselves, ‘Wow, we’re gonna be watching everybody else play.’ Ultimately, it was just us and Bridgeport — two city schools with more minority kids than not — that were not going to be playing. And that became a huge racial piece amidst the Black Lives Matter movement. You have a CIAC predominantly made up of Caucasians voting to still play football, even though they already knew that the two biggest cities in Connecticut with the largest minority populations were not going to be playing.”

He added that it was “a huge news story” and recalled one summer day when he had four news trucks in his driveway.

Additionally, according to Acquavita, since many of the football seniors at Wilbur Cross saw this year as their final chance to make a name for themselves for recruiting Division I schools, the option to transfer to a school outside of New Haven was alluring. 

It was an unparalleled stretch of time in Acquavita’s coaching career, as players opting to transfer out of Wilbur Cross was one of several complications the head coach had to contend with. 

“I had players looking to jump ship and transfer schools, players trying to use an off-address West Haven line,” Acquavita said. “I don’t blame them — many of them were seniors looking to play their last year. I get it. When job opportunities started appearing during that time, a lot of these kids even went out and got full-time jobs to help their families. Whenever I took a second to just sit and think about the whole dynamic, it made my head spin.”

Things would take an unexpected turn two and a half weeks later on Sept. 16, when the CIAC changed course and officially canceled high school football in the fall. In a statement following this surprising announcement, Glenn Lungarini, the executive director for the organization, explained that the CIAC wanted to align itself with the DPH. Since the DPH had preached all summer long against the idea of holding the high-risk sport in the fall, it then became the policy of the CIAC.

With full-contact, 11-on-11 football ruled out, the CIAC and DPH released recommendations for modified football activities that high schools could potentially pursue. The most notable of these was the opportunity for high school conferences to take part in 7-on-7 passing leagues. A non-contact style of football, which utilizes a combination of receivers and running backs in addition to a quarterback and center, all while employing flag football rules for tackling. The CIAC also left the door open for the possibility of a football season carried out at a later date in 2021 — as long as it does not interfere with the spring sports schedule. 

For the majority of Connecticut high school football teams, this was a tough pill to swallow. For Acquavita and Wilbur Cross, by contrast, the decision was a welcome development.

“Through that entire two and a half week span from when the New Haven health director said we’re not playing, to the CIAC making a decision that no Connecticut high school would play in the fall, we thought we would be watching suburbia play football from home,” Acquavita said. “And that run of time was absolutely dreadful. Eventually, the CIAC pivoted and said there would be no football in the fall. So from a New Haven perspective, as awful as it sounds, for us it was a win because it gave us the hope the team needed that we could eventually play in February, March and April.”

A State Champion Perspective

While the CIAC’s final decision to cancel fall football ignited some hope in Wilbur Cross, along with the rest of the New Haven School District, feelings of devastation reigned at the number one high school team in Connecticut — St. Joseph, located just 15 miles outside of New Haven in Trumbull. 

Connecticut State Champions fifteen times and winners of the last three championship games, St. Joseph, along with head coach Joe Vecchia, were devastated with the CIAC’s decision. Even when the committee emerged at the end of September with approved plans for an “alternative” full-contact football season to be carried out between the winter and spring seasons, the maximum of five games between March and April that St. Joseph would be allowed to play was not enough for Vecchia.

“I think that [the alternative season] is a waste of time,” Vecchia said. “To play four or five games in the spring doesn’t make sense to me if you’re not going to go out there and compete for something. These would be just exhibition games, or ‘meaningful experiences’ — this new buzzword [the CIAC] has going around. A few games here and there in the spring are not gonna do it for anybody, especially my team.” 

Despite no CIAC-sanctioned football season, high schools such as St. Joseph still had the ability to play football as a club sport in what the CIAC coined “pop up” leagues. While these games would not be sanctioned by the state, they would be full-contact, 11-on-11 competitive sporting events. Moreover, high school student-athletes could take part in such a league and still retain their eligibility for the alternative spring season.

St. Joseph decided to take full advantage of these unsanctioned club games. According to Vecchia, they have formed a league with nine other teams, and the four games his team has competed in have gone off without a hitch — no player has tested positive for the coronavirus that he is aware of.

“Football has obviously been a big part of me and my teammate’s lives, so it being canceled took a heavy toll on us in the beginning,” St. Joseph senior defensive end Carson Arkay said. “However, our team comes from very competitive mindsets so we never gave up and never stopped grinding.”

Along with Connecticut, there are currently 17 other states, plus the District of Columbia, that have canceled tackle football this fall. 

Jared Fel | jared.fel@yale.edu