Mississippi’s private schools, such as Madison Ridgeland Academy and Presbyterian Christian, shown here from a 2019 game, plan to start the 2020 season on time in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mississippi currently has the highest COVID-19 positivity rate in the U.S., but the state’s private high schools plan to play organized football on August 13, a week from Thursday.

The Mid-South Association of Independent Schools (MAIS), the governing body of Mississippi private schools, will open its regular season on Thursday, August 20, but several private school teams around the state are scheduled to be involved in football jamborees with multiple teams August 13 and 14.

Said Shane Blanton, MAIS executive director in a phone conversation Wednesday morning: “We’re excited to get started. We think we have a very good plan. We’re trying our best to do what’s right for our children.”

Mississippi’s public high schools have delayed the start of the football season until Sept. 4. The Southeastern Conference has delayed its start until Sept. 26. The Southwestern Athletic Conference has postponed football season until the spring.

Rick Cleveland

Across the nation, changes to existing football plans are announced nearly daily. The University of Connecticut (UConn), which had been scheduled to play Ole Miss before the SEC went to a conference games-only schedule, announced the cancellation of its 2020 football season early Wednesday.

Louisiana’s public high schools Wednesday delayed the start of the 2020 season until October.

In Mississippi, Greenwood-Leflore County Schools have  joined Greenville High School in canceling fall sports. Greenville’s school board made the unanimous decision last week. Greenwood-Leflore’s school board voted 3-2 Tuesday. Greenwood-Leflore high schools include Greenwood, Leflore County and Amanda Elzy high schools. That list could grow. Several other school systems around the state are known to be weighing options.

Gov. Tate Reeves has made no executive order concerning the playing of football, but said in his scheduled press conference Tuesday, “Nobody likes high school sports as much as I do, but I am going to focus on the education of our students first and foremost. There are several sports at the high school level that can be safely played. I know this for sure: I do not envision any scenario in which there can be a large crowd in the stands to watch those games.”

At the same press conference, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said his chief fear would be for the fans in the stands, rather than the players on the field.

“There is a risk for the players,” Dobbs said. “That said, there aren’t a lot of 65-year-olds taking the field out there. But there would be in stands, and that could promulgate community spread in areas. So, if we’re going to play football in the next couple of weeks, the stands would need to be nearly empty.”

Following the press conference, asked directly about the wisdom of playing football, given Mississippi’s COVID-19 numbers presently, Dobbs responded, “I just wouldn’t do it. Not now.”

Shane Blanton

MAIS chief Blanton said his organization has a plan for football attendance.

“For at least the first weekend, we are looking at 25 percent of capacity,” Blanton said. “We hope we can raise that to 50 percent and perhaps beyond that as the state’s numbers improve. In Alabama, they are going 100 percent from the beginning.”

As for how the crowd size limitations will be enforced Blanton said, “That will be left up to the individual schools.”

Traditional rivalry games such as those that involved Jackson Prep, Jackson Academy and Madison-Ridgeland Academy routinely pack the stadiums. MRA is scheduled to play at Jackson Academy on Sept. 4. A reasonable question: How will it be decided who can attend and who can’t? Better yet, who is going to tell grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles: No, you can’t come in?

Mississippi’s current statewide restrictions limit gatherings to 10 people indoors and 20 people outdoors and call for social distancing of six feet of separation between persons who do not live in the same household. Any football game will exceed those “gathering” limits on the playing field alone, not to mention the sidelines or the stands. As for the six feet of separation, you can’t block or tackle from six feet away.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.