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State indefinitely postpones high-risk winter sports

Zach Redding of Eastport-South Manor, in green wrestles

Zach Redding of Eastport-South Manor, in green wrestles against Jake Schneider of MacArthur in the Division I semifinals 132-pound match at the New York state wrestling championships on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, at the Times Union Center in Albany. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced on Friday that the start date for high-risk winter sports is indefinitely postponed and that it will not hold any 2021 winter sports state championship tournaments.

The date for the start of the high-risk winter sports – boys and girls basketball, wrestling and competitive cheerleading – had already been changed twice. It was moved from Nov. 16 to Nov. 30 and then to Jan. 4. NYSPHSAA executive director Robert Zayas said this indefinite pause – instituted by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo because of risks related to the coronavirus pandemic – will be in place until the Cuomo administration grants permission to start.

"Our schools need, and they’ve requested, at least two to three weeks before the season would begin to go ahead and get prepared," Zayas said in an afternoon news conference. "[It’s] not likely that we're going to get authorization. As infection rates and hospitalization rates increase, we realized that January 4 is no longer reality. And if we push to January 19, then we [could] be in the same exact situation in a few more weeks. That's the reason why we're postponing until authorization is given and we're not establishing a target or goal date."

The decision to postpone from Jan. 4 was not unexpected, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t come and go without some drama.

Section XI, the governing body for school sports in Suffolk County, sent a morning email to school athletics officials saying the high-risk winter sports were canceled. It was met with outrage and, in the late afternoon, Section XI executive director Tom Combs had to walk back the decision. Like the rest of the state, those sports now are indefinitely postponed until the Cuomo administration issues permission for them to start.

The low- and moderate-risk sports of bowling, swimming and indoor track and field – which began practicing in other parts of the state last week and commence Jan. 4 on Long Island – will go forward.

During Cuomo’s Friday afternoon COVID-19 news conference, state budget director Robert Mujica reiterated that there are no current plans for the high-risk sports to start up.

"As the [COVID-19 infection] numbers continue to increase all across the state, those high-risk sports activities remain on hold until we see a decline and that's not happening," Mujica said.

The Cuomo administration compiled data through contact tracing across the three months through November to show the highest sources of coronavirus community spread. Sports is listed as seventh highest on a list of the top 30 with a 1.04% share. Restaurants and Bars, for example, is fifth at 1.43%.

"You see sport way up towards the top on areas of spread," Cuomo said. "That 1.04% is that cluster of sports. Restaurants and bars are 1.4%. Sports is higher than religious activities."

Religious activities rank 11th at 0.69%.

"There are increasing clusters related to sports activities, which puts them in the high categories for infection," Mujica said. "So that's where they are: there's no change right now in allowing the high-risk sports activities to begin, and we don't expect that to happen until we start to see the rates going down and what we’re actually seeing is the rates going up."

The histrionics in Suffolk about the cancelation began with the morning email, obtained by Newsday, which read in part "we are now notifying you OFFICIALLY that the following sports will NOT take place in Section XI for the Winter 2021 season" and went on to specify basketball, wrestling and competitive cheerleading. After fielding numerous calls from school and athletics officials, Combs changed the section’s stance to "indefinitely postponed" and then sent a second email, also obtained by Newsday.

It read, in part, "to follow up on our previous email, Section XI is not canceling. We are following the state and indefinitely postponing until more information is received from the governor."

"We sent an email from our office to the [athletic directors] that said our high-risk winter sports were canceled," Combs said. "The email should have read ‘high-risk winter sports are indefinitely postponed.’"

The cancelation of state championship tournaments has only a modest impact on Long Island’s public school student-athletes.

When Section XI opted in August not to hold any sports in the fall and instead play three compressed seasons from January to June, it opted out of all state championship tournaments. Section VIII, the governing body for public school sports in Nassau County, also is playing three sports seasons in a six-month window beginning Jan. 4 but had left the door open to sending its champions to a state tournament if the state and county schedules synched up and allowed it.

With Michael Gormley

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