What might high school sports look like this fall?

Paul Neidig expects his first year as IHSAA commissioner to begin the same way that every other fall season has for decades — with football games played on Friday nights, soccer and volleyball matches, all that other good stuff.

Well, maybe not "expects." But he’s hopeful.

"I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be competing in the fall as we have known it in the past," Neidig said.

The caution is still necessary. There are too many unknowns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic to make predictions with certainty just yet, especially since the school year is almost two full months away.

Indiana has been reopening the economy in stages, and the IHSAA is allowing fall sports team work out again July 6. No delays have been announced for fall competition.

"We are focused on a return to sports as we know it in the fall," Neidig said. "We’ve got a couple of months left here, and we’re looking at it as this is what we know today, but in two weeks, we may know something different, and it could be good, it could be bad. We’re not going to say, ‘This is a definite,’ and it may not be. But we are working toward a fall start, just as we have for many, many years in the past."

Anticipating the reopening of campuses, the IHSAA already had given teams notice to begin working out together July 1. That would begin the process of taxiing down the runway in preparation for a full fall sports takeoff.

But even if the start of the school year goes off without a hitch, don’t expect sports to look exactly the same. Social distancing guidelines will likely continue in some form for quite some time. More than 112,000 Americans have died as a result of the coronavirus, and it’s far too early to claim victory over it. Numbers are still rising in some states.

There’s no way of knowing what kind of impact the gradual reopening of businesses and churches, the growing sizes of social gatherings — or the protests happening in cities in towns nationwide — might have on the spread of the virus.

So while numbers have been declining in Indiana for more than a month and Neidig is confident now that sports will be played this fall, he’s not ready to commit to many specifics.

Especially when it comes to the question of whether fans will be allowed to pack the bleachers to cheer for their favorite teams.

"On crowds … it’s just too early to tell," Neidig said. "Our first task that we’re focused on is getting our coaches back in touch with our kids and let’s start working on the things they do in the summer — strength training, skill development. That’s our No. 1 goal. Our No. 2 goal is to get our kids in practice at the start of August. And then our third goal in this is to start competing."

With so much still unknown, local administrators aren’t in any hurry to make concrete predictions about what August and beyond might look like.

In late May, the National Federation of High School Associations released a set of guidelines for gradually getting back to action in the fall. Those guidelines included a three-phase plan that broke sports up into groups by risk. Football, not surprisingly, is classified as "high risk," while sports like golf and cross country were on the low end.

Most of the ideas in the NFHS plan — no shared water fountains or coolers, temperature checks and screening of all athletes and coaches, limits on the size of workout groups — were included in the IN-CLASS guidelines released by the governor’s office and the Indiana Department of Education.

Neidig said the IHSAA may not take a one-size-fits-all approach with certain aspects of its plans because the virus has had varying impacts across different areas of the state. There will almost certainly be some leeway for individual schools to do things their own way.

"Schools can provide more restrictive guidelines if you wish," Neidig said. "It’s kind of like if you go to Menards, they want you to wear a mask. If you go to Lowe’s, it’s optional. I think that’s kind of where we’ll be in the fall because every community’s different. What this looks like in Marion County and Cass County is different than what it looks like in Johnson County or Gibson County."

Johnson County has consistently been among the Indiana counties with the most cases since the outbreak began, although its numbers have tapered off considerably relative to other urban and suburban counties. The totals for such areas as Fort Wayne, Elkhart and South Bend have surged past Johnson County in recent weeks, and there’s no real way of knowing when or where the next spike might be.

As state and local governments have gone through the process of reopening the country in recent weeks, it has become clear in most cases financial considerations were factoring at least somewhat into the decision-making process. With football accounting for such a large share of the income for high school athletic departments and the IHSAA, one would expect those entities to feel a bit of pressure to get back to normal.

Losing the fall — especially football — could be crippling. So what if there is a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall and the state football tournament suffers the same fate boys basketball did in March?

Neidig had an answer.

"We’ve planned for a rainy day," he said. "A rainy day is here, and we’re making it through. But if we get to a point where we cannot contest a football tournament, our office will look drastically different in the future. I hate to say that, but it’s the reality."

Still, Neidig insists dollars won’t steer the IHSAA toward a particular outcome. 

"The first and foremost is the safety of our student-athletes and spectators," he said. "A dollar earned or a ticket should not drive that decision. And I get it. I understand the economic impact of not getting back to sport, but it just would not be the right thing to do to do it blindly and not consider our fans, spectators and kids."

What those considerations might be will depend largely upon what the state’s higher-ups decide later this summer. Fall sports could be contested without any fans present at all, with reduced crowds or at full capacity but allowing fans back in would bring an additional set of concerns.

How do you keep fans spread out? Who polices the crowds and makes sure people aren’t getting too close to one another? Will masks be required for spectators?

Neidig, the IHSAA and the hundreds of member schools are all sailing through uncharted waters here, and the waves may be choppier than expected in the coming months. Mapping out what fall will look like is going to take some time, no matter how eager sports fans are to read that map.