AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Two of the five major Division I college football conferences have already decided not to play this fall because of the pandemic, but high school football is happening in more than 30 states this season, and so is the debate over whether it's right or reckless to let teenagers play a game considered high risk for COVID-19 transmission. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: With the required tip of the cap to Texas, high school football is a really big deal in Alabama, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GOLDMAN: It could have been any Friday night game last week outside of Birmingham, Ala., until, of course, the PA announcer said this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: So please, for the sake of all of our students involved, mask up, social distance and wash your hands. We certainly thank you.
GOLDMAN: Many in the stands did mask up, but probably would have gotten a C-minus in social distancing. A coach for one of the team's, Spain Park, trying to get his players to be better, walking the sideline saying, 6 feet, 6 feet apart.
SHAWN RANEY: That's why I'm hoarse 'cause I'm talking about space out.
GOLDMAN: This was Spain Park head coach Shawn Raney after his team's win.
RANEY: We took five charter buses last week to Huntsville so we could space our kids out. So it's a mess, to tell you the truth, with - for coaches 'cause you're trying to coach your kids and win games, and with all that over it, it's tough. But I feel like we've done a good job with our kids. I think we need to be out here.
GOLDMAN: Down in the southeast part of the state, you'll never have to convince Mark Rose of the need for football. He played for the legendary coach Pat Dye at Auburn. He's been a high school head coach for 23 years. He's currently at Russell County High. And he was the fifth fastest in Alabama to win 100 games. So it's notable when Rose says kids shouldn't be playing during a pandemic.
MARK ROSE: I mean, it's flat-out child exploitation. Of course, kids want to play, but we are charged to protect them.
GOLDMAN: And he can't, Rose says, because of a lack of testing. Kids get tested when they show symptoms, but in the state high school athletic association's COVID protocols, there's not a testing policy. And that, he says, is reckless and dangerous.
ROSE: We're breaking every rule, that every doctor in the world says we're not going face-to-face school, yet we're running players into each other all week and sending them home untested. And then on Friday night, they want us to go out there and run them in to a hundred on our sideline and a hundred on the other sideline, and all we know is that nobody out there have been tested.
GOLDMAN: Rose says an asymptomatic outbreak on his team landed a 33-year-old assistant coach in intensive care for nearly two weeks and sickened a player's mother. The risk of spread is greater, he says, in his rural county, where many of his players live in multigenerational homes.
RON INGRAM: I guess what Coach Rose would like to do is to have a state or some entity pay for the testing for all the students and the coaches.
GOLDMAN: Ron Ingram is the assistant director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association.
INGRAM: That would be admirable if the funding was there.
GOLDMAN: It's not in Alabama or most other states. Ingram says Alabama acknowledges the risk of football and coronavirus but believes it can be mitigated with safety protocols. And, he adds, they still need to figure out whether football is the potential spreader Mark Rose fears.
INGRAM: Right now we don't have enough data to say that playing football ups that risk. That same teenager, if he goes to the local McDonald's on a Friday night with his friends, that same risk - he still goes back home to the same parents and to the same grandparents.
GOLDMAN: If it's data they're waiting for, it's coming, says Dr. Michael Shingles. He's on a sports medicine committee advising high schools in Michigan, which yesterday reinstated high school football after earlier canceling it for the fall.
MICHAEL SHINGLES: We're going to have a experiment in the United States right now because there are states that are going to do this and states that are not, and we're going to find out probably in the next couple of months from people getting sick and having major issues.
GOLDMAN: Mark Rose in Alabama would rather not have high school football players and their families be, in his words, guinea pigs. Rose says he doesn't speak for officials in his school district, but he does for many other coaches who fear losing their jobs if they speak out. Rose was bracing for a showdown when he made it clear he would not coach his team tonight in their season-opening game to protest playing without testing. But this week, the virus intervened. One of his players tested positive, possibly exposing as many as two-dozen teammates. Practices are shut down. Tonight's game is off. And Rose says it's uncertain when his Russell County Warriors will play football again.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.