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Weighing the risks: Local doctors say high school sports path to field difficult but possible

Weighing the risks: Local doctors say high school sports path to field difficult but possible

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Dr. Lee Murphy can sense the tough decisions coming for high school players, parents, coaches and administrators.

The chance for high school athletes to compete this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic will be discussed almost constantly in certain local circles for the rest of the summer.

While there are plenty of self-appointed experts out there, Murphy is in a unique position to sympathize with the teenagers who might be nervously awaiting an outcome, while understanding the health implications from a doctor’s perspective.

As a senior at Crawford High School, Murphy played quarterback for the Pirates. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes during his ninth grade year and then dealt with the challenges that presented as he pursued a football career.

During his last fall on the football field, Murphy led a Crawford team, coached by his father Robert Murphy, to the Class 2A Division II state championship in 2004.

He knows that high school senior athletes desperately want to play, no matter what the daily COVID-19 statistics reveal.

“If I were going into my senior year to play football, I would 100 percent want to play football,” Murphy said. “To tell you the truth, it might not be that much of a hesitation.”

But he’s a doctor now, practicing at the Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Waco, just off of Highway 6 and Fish Pond. In that role, he’s seen the effects of the novel coronavirus.

“Then you put on this other hat of being a physician and seeing those things and knowing what the risks are, it is a completely different scenario,” Murphy said.

Murphy, McLennan County Medical Society president Dr. William McCunniff and McLennan County Health District spokesperson Kelly Craine all spoke with the Trib this week about the challenges for high school athletes to compete in the fall.

All of them acknowledged that sports, particularly contact sports, put athletes at a higher risk of catching COVID-19. The consensus is that the virus is spreading through prolonged contact – at least 10 to 15 minutes – within six feet of an infected person. So it’s not just the competition, but the practice and locker room environment and the travel to and from games that increase the risk level.

None of them said definitively that high school sports shouldn’t take place, but they agreed that there are risks that have to be fully understood.

“To tell you the truth, we’re going to be putting a lot of these kiddos in a very adult situation, kind of the same situation that we put patients in when we talk about risk of a procedure,” Murphy said. “We’re going to have to put them in a position to think like an adult, to think long term.”

McCunniff is also a former football player at Lubbock Monterey High School and at Baylor during the 2003 and 2004 seasons.

He’s still a sports fan and said he’s optimistic that athletics can return in the fall.

“I weigh the potential risk of virus transmission with the critical need for adolescents to exercise for both their long-term mental and physical health,” McCunniff said. “It is essential for all of us to have healthy outlets for our stress.”

But he also knows it’s going to take a lot of factors coming together.

McCunniff described a descending level of COVID-19 exposure risk with contact sports like football and wrestling being the most risky, followed by less-contact oriented sports like volleyball, basketball, softball, baseball, soccer and tennis being medium risk, and finally very low risk for sports like golf, swimming and cross country.

The more risk involved in a specific sport, the more there will have to be a commitment to mitigating the chances that COVID-19 could spread during practice or competition. But McCunniff didn’t rule it out.

“I think the modifications to adapt to these protocols will be a challenge, especially in certain areas, but possible as most of us see the ultimate benefit in allowing athletes to compete,” McCunniff said. “It will require a significant amount of communication and buy-in from parents, athletes, coaches, physicians and school leaders.

“With measures in place, we can try and prevent an illness from spreading or stop it early. There will be measures that we can do to help decrease the risk.”

None of the three medical representatives said definitively that testing for the novel coronavirus should be a requirement.

“It really depends on their availability and their resources to have the test done,” Craine said. “That depends on how many (student-athletes the schools) have in their sports.”

Murphy acknowledged that college and pro sports with frequent testing procedures in place have a better chance of getting on the field sooner.

Asked if a booster club or some other entity with deep pockets stepping in to defray or cover the costs of mass, regular testing could help, Murphy agreed that would be a hopeful scenario.

“That would be great,” he said. “If you could do it every week, that would be a lot better than just trying to hope that someone doesn’t get it.”

McCunniff provided a list of items to be considered as schools prepare to lessen the chance of COVID-19 spreading during sports activities. It included the now familiar measures like use of masks and social distancing on the sidelines. He also said modifications in transportation to games, assigned water bottles, not using whistles at practice, scheduling games with shorter travel distances, pre-screening for workouts and diligently cleaning equipment will be important.

Essentially, the same hard work associated with succeeding on the field would need to be applied to the detailed processes of making the playing environment safer.

“There’s no doubt that sports will look different this year in terms of high school athletics,” McCunniff said. “Locally, with proper protocols in place, I believe we can take measure to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 transmission.”

How much will altering competition to make it safe change the landscape of high school sports in the fall? Murphy said he can see a tough reality for some, including his alma mater. The Crawford softball team missed out on a chance to defend the state championship it won in the spring of 2019 and the same situation could be ahead for the Lady Pirates volleyball team, which won state last fall.

“You just ache for them,” Murphy said. “It’s just real tough. I don’t want to be the one to say ‘No, you can’t do that.’ But at the same time, it’s going to be tough.”

Of course, Murphy’s mindset has changed since mid-June. The rise in COVID-19 positive tests both in McLennan County and throughout Texas has thrown obstacles in the path back to sports as normal.

However, like McCunniff, the former football player in Murphy is holding on to hope of sports returning.

“What if the worst-case scenario is that we delay for a little bit longer and see? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” Murphy said. “Either way, you’re still going to have to have some processes in place to keep the kiddos safe and keep the coaches safe.”

Photos: High school football gets underway with workouts

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