Marietta celebrates with its fans after winning the Class AAAAAAA state championship game last December. If the Blue Devils play this fall, they may have to do it without fans in the stands.

Football has been named a "higher-risk" sport by the National Federation of State High School Associations -- a designation that puts into question how and when gridiron athletes can return to the field, and if fans will be present.

The announcement came as part of a 16-page report the NFHS issued Tuesday, in conjunction with the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, as a suggested guideline for how state athletic associations should proceed as they prepare for the fall semester with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Georgia High School Association works in conjunction with the NFHS and uses the national rules to govern all official games and activities. However, the GHSA is not required to follow the suggestions set forth in the announcement.

GHSA executive director Robin Hines previously said he was hopeful students, including athletes, would be able to return to school campuses beginning next month. No high school athletics have been played since the spring seasons was canceled in mid-March.

According to the NFHS guidelines, higher-risk sports "involve close, sustained contact between participants, lack of significant protective barriers and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants."

In addition to football, the NFHS concluded that wrestling, boys lacrosse and competitive cheer -- all GHSA-sanctioned sports -- would also meet that criteria.

With football being a money-driving sport, many school athletic departments could face a double whammy, as the guidelines also deem spectators at games as non-essential. It means the NFHS is suggesting that, if games are played, they should be done so without fans in the stands.

The guidelines instruct schools to "Group people into tiers from essential to non-essential and decide which tiers will be allowed at an event.

"Tier 1 (Essential): Athletes, coaches, officials, event staff, medical staff, security.

"Tier 2 (Preferred): Media.

"Tier 3 (Non-essential): Spectators, vendors.

"Only Tier 1 and 2 personnel will be allowed to attend events until state/local health departments lift restrictions on mass gatherings."

Coordinating transportation to and from events could also become a challenge as the suggested guidelines state: "Schools must consider social distancing requirements when scheduling contests and events for the fall. Social distancing (as required by state or local health department) will need to be maintained on buses/vans. Thus, multiple buses/vans and/or parental/guardian transportation will likely be needed."

The GHSA's fall sports schedule includes football, fast-pitch softball, volleyball and cross country. According to the NFHS, softball and volleyball are considered moderate-risk sports, which is defined as "sports that involve close, sustained contact, but with protective equipment in place that may reduce the likelihood of respiratory particle transmission between participants OR intermittent close contact OR group sports OR sports that use equipment that can’t be cleaned between participants."

Other moderate-risk sports and activities sanctioned by the GHSA include basketball, baseball, soccer, gymnastics (if equipment can’t be sufficiently cleaned between competitors), tennis, swimming relays, pole vault, high jump, long jump and girls lacrosse. Many of these sports, including baseball, softball and volleyball, could be deemed low-risk with appropriate cleaning of equipment and mask usage.

The NFHS guidelines suggest lower-risk sports to be those "that can be done with social distancing or individually with no sharing of equipment or the ability to clean the equipment between use by competitors.

Those GHSA-sanctioned sports and activities include: individual running events, throwing events (javelin, shot put, discus), individual swimming events, golf, sideline cheerleading and cross country running (with staggered starts).

In addition, the NFHS offered a multitude of suggested guidelines and protocols broken down into three phases -- in accordance with guidelines published by the White House and CDC -- for coaches and athletes being screened, along with facility and equipment cleaning.

Phase 1 is the most stringent as students first arrive on campus. Just some of the many suggestions include that all coaches and students should be screened for symptoms of the coronavirus prior to every workout, and it should include a record of all who were present. That information should be recorded and stored in case of the need to trace potentially infected persons if someone tests positive for the virus.

There should be no more than 10 people at a time inside or outside at a workout. Locker rooms should not be utilized. Showers should be taken at home.

Prior to any individual or groups entering a facility, all hard surfaces -- including chairs, furniture in meeting rooms, locker rooms, weight room equipment, bathrooms and athletic training tables -- should be wiped down and sanitized. 

If athletes each the field for a practice or a workout, there is to be no shared equipment between individuals. All equipment, including balls, need to be cleaned prior to the next workout, and if athletes are running individual drills, any equipment used would need to be cleaned before the next player uses it. 

For example, a basketball player can shoot with a ball, but that ball should not shared with teammates. Also, a football player should not compete in a drill where the same ball is handed off to a teammate.  

Also, centralized water stations should not be used. All athletes should bring their own water bottle to practice.

The restrictions ease in Phase 2 and Phase 3, as states begin to show there is no evidence of new spikes in cases of the virus.

“We are greatly indebted to the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee for its work in formulating this guidance for re-opening high school athletics and activities,” NFHS executive director Karissa Niehoff said in a release. “It is important to be clear that this is guidance for individual states to consider as they return to activities this fall. States will utilize the guidance in this document as it best fits their state after consulting with local and state health departments.

“We believe this guidance document will be a tremendous resource for our member state associations as they determine the timetables for re-opening sports and activities. The NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee utilized recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as some return-to-play considerations by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, in formulating this guidance document for reopening athletics and other activities in our nation’s schools.”   

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