As sports organizations across the province prep return-to-play protocols – with some already approved to restart later this month – contact sports like football and rugby are dealing with an even bigger challenge: how to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines in sports where on-field distancing is impossible.
Locally, it’s an issue that both the Bayside Rugby Club and the White Rock-South Surrey Titans football association are currently grappling with.
Both organizations are waiting to hear return-to-play details from their respective provincial and regional sport organizations, and Bayside president Kevin Whitmarsh told Peace Arch News he wasn’t sure what to expect when new guidelines are agreed upon and sanctioned.
“Unfortunately, the ViaSport guidelines (released in May) did not say much for contact sports and those where you hold a ball, which we intersect both, making it especially challenging,” he said.
Even the non-tackle alternative to rugby – touch rugby – poses issues with regard to distancing and contact protocols, he noted.
“When you want to play the non-contact version of our sport, you play touch – you can see the issue of that, it’s right in the name.”
Even moving to a flag system, like football, poses problems, as “flags are still concentrated touch points,” Whitmarsh said.
Youth football – either flag or tackle – have similar issues to deal with, perhaps even moreso than rugby considering there is more equipment involved, all of which needs to be constantly cleaned and sterilized.
The traditional football season doesn’t start on the Semiahmoo Peninsula until late summer, but the 2020 spring/summer flag football season – which has between 1,000-2,000 participants across the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley – has already been cancelled.
The Vancouver Mainland Football League, of which the Titans are a part, is currently waiting for its return-to-play plan to be approved, VMFL president Kevin Parks told PAN Wednesday.
Parks said he drew up the first draft of the VMFL’s return-to-play plan himself “because I’m not the kind of person who likes to just sit around waiting.” It was fine-tuned further after discussion amongst the presidents of the 11 VMFL associations, he said.
The VMFL plan – which Parks said probably includes more safety measures than are even required – is essentially broken up into three parts: the first 30 days, the middle 30 and the final 30, the latter of which include regular-season and playoff games.
The first 30 days, Parks explained, would be non-contact, with players not wearing equipment. On-field work would involve drills, knowledge and general conditioning.
“Kids have been sitting around for months – they’ll need to have time to get into shape,” he said.
The middle 30-day period would include full gear for players – “All our equipment will be sanitized and ready to go,” Parks said – and involve minimal tackling at practice.
Finally, the Day 60 to Day 90 period would include games, although they would also look markedly different.
For starters, in order to stay under the 50-person gathering limit put in place by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Parks said traditional 12-player-per-side games are a non-starter.
“We have to limit rosters, so we aren’t doing 12-man football in the VMFL this year,” Parks said.
Parks has proposed a nine-on-nine game, which is part of the VMFL already.
“We already have nine-man divisions… and White Rock is actually famous for its nine-on-nine football teams, and it’s awesome,” he said.
Coaching staff would also be limited to just two or three per team, he added, while other game personnel and spectators would also be limited or kept at a distance.
There would be a slew of new game-day safety measures under the proposed plan, too.
Admitting that limiting contact in a contact sport simply cannot be done, Parks said they would simply ramp up sanitizing efforts, including constant cleaning of game balls.
“You just can’t prevent (contact). A player is going to touch his mouth guard, then his glove is going to touch another player, and then maybe that player adjusts his mouth guard, and then suddenly, there’s a transfer (of potential germs),” he said.
At each game, one person would be designated as the ‘ball person’ who would be in charge of cleaning each one and rotating it back into play. In a perfect world, Parks said balls would be sent to the sideline for sterilization after each play.
As well, all players will be required to wear gloves and long sleeves, to further protect themselves from contact. To limit transferring droplets, full face shields will also be attached to each helmet – shields that cover the entire face, as opposed to traditional football face shields that only cover a player’s eyes.
On-field officials will also be required to wear masks during games, though Parks said they’ll obviously need to pull them down from their mouths in order to blow the whistle. Officials have also been instructed to turn away from players – whenever possible – when blowing the whistle, in order to further limit droplet transmission.
With the older age divisions, bantam and midget, inter-league play between the VMFL, the Fraser Valley-based Valley Community Football League and Vancouver Island league would likely be axed for this season, Parks said, citing limits on non-essential travel as the reason.
Parks said the final phase of the season – provincial championships – are the only thing he doesn’t yet have a solution for, though he admits such games could simply be cut altogether for one season. At this point, he noted, crowning a B.C. champ isn’t the most important thing.
“We just need to get the kids out there… and I’m trying.”
In order to keep their young players interested in the sport, Parks said they’re in the midst of holding an essay contest for players, who have been tasked with writing about what they love about football. The response – from players and parents, alike – has been positive, he said.
“It’s just a way to keep the kids engaged… and you don’t get marked on it – you can’t fail this one,” he laughed.
Regardless of when contact sports are green-lit to return to the field, both Whitmarsh and Parks said accepting that things will be different – for awhile at least – is going to be key for all involved.
“In broad strokes – we certainly aren’t expecting rugby as we know it to take place in 2020,” Whitmarsh said.