By Mark Uyl
MHSAA Executive Director
Since March 12, our world has been anything but normal. These times have tested most everything in life, and as summer turns toward fall, we find ourselves still with far more questions than answers. It has been said that an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.
Let me start with these abnormal times. I’ve had many conversations with administrators over the past month about the start of school and school sports. The one constant theme is these are anything but normal times. Many of these conversations have moved to the issue of schools starting the academic year virtually while considering whether or not to offer school sports opportunities this fall. Let me share the things that have been part of almost all conversations on this topic.
The loudest message I hear is kids are going to be playing sports this fall someplace. Period. If we believe that kids are going to take the fall off if school sports aren’t offered, we haven’t been paying much attention since May. Since that time, athletic activity has taken place in the club, travel, AAU and non-school space nearly every day. From first-hand experience, many of these events have implemented ZERO of the safety standards and protocols that businesses and schools have adopted for their plans of return. The non-school world generally has plowed ahead this summer with few-to-no rules, regulations, enforcement, oversight and accountability to anyone. If kids are going to be playing sports, our member schools are telling us that activity needs to be in the safest environment possible – which is with professional educators and trained coaches in our school sports world.
Schools are quick to point out that kids have been conditioning and training with school coaches in school-sponsored workouts most of the summer. We believe that the absence of virus outbreaks among our 749 high schools’ summer activities, involving thousands of kids, has been because schools have been following the return-to-activity plans. Districts have told us they can continue doing what they’ve been doing safely since June by following all COVID guidance and regulations we have put in place with government’s leadership and partnership.
Schools starting the year virtually are telling us they will use the lessons learned from the start of sports for when students return to campus later in the fall. School administrators have shared this view privately as this has become a highly-charged topic among various groups within our school communities. Sports allow schools to bring students back to campus in small, consistent and defined groups with the same adults working with those students each day. In school sports, there is little mixing of students from one sport with those students in another – making it much easier to monitor, track and trace kids when needed than if all students were in the buildings, hallways and classrooms all day. We hear from administrators that valuable lessons can be learned with athletics in August and September for a successful school start-up with students back on campus in October.
All of us share the fundamental belief that we must protect the health and safety of individuals first. This doesn’t include only COVID prevention measures, but also the mental health of teenage students and adults as well. In districts that are starting the school year online, they see athletics being the one shred of normalcy students, and staff members who choose to coach, will have during the fall. It’s a chance to safely interact with peers and get needed physical activity that hasn’t been happening for some kids since March. Health and safety has to include all facets of the individual, and more research is being shared each day about how mental health is becoming a critical issue. For many at-risk kids, sports is the one motivating factor to keep them in school and progressing toward graduation. Given the challenges of all online education for these at-risk kids, sports and the daily routine they bring perhaps would be more important for this group of students than ever before.
With no school sports, the affluent communities and families can navigate online learning during the day and then afford the non-school athletic opportunities that kids and families in less-affluent areas simply cannot. In many communities, school sports can provide opportunities and open doors that would not appear if kids become priced-out from participating and competing.
The past five months have been the most abnormal in a century. School sports being the one pathway back to school for students in our state – the one norm for this fall – run by professional educators who put kids first, would be an incredible boost to the physical and mental health of all of us. We believe that school sports can be done safely and smartly, and the MHSAA has developed plans that do just that. While the optics of sports taking place while waiting for in-person education is not what any of us prefer, we believe we must react to these abnormal times by thinking differently and looking at these unique times through a unique lens.
Trying to find one normal for our kids in these abnormal school days might just be the best thing we can do.
Michigan continued to rank 10th nationally in high school-aged population during the 2022-23 school year and continued to best that ranking in participation in high school sports, according to the annual national participation study conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
Michigan ranked ninth for overall participation nationally, based on a total of 268,070 participants who competed in sports for which the MHSAA conducts postseason tournaments. The total counts students once for each sport played, meaning students who are multiple-sport athletes are counted more than once.
Michigan also ranked ninth nationally for both girls (111,569) and boys (156,501) participation separately, while ranking ninth for high-school aged boys population and 10th for girls according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Michigan’s national rankings in seven sports improved from 2021-22, while nine sports saw lower national rankings than the previous year. The biggest jumps came in girls volleyball and boys soccer, which both moved up two spots – volleyball to fourth-highest participation nationally, and boys soccer to eighth. Girls golf (fourth), softball (seventh), girls track & field (seventh), girls swimming & diving and boys swimming & diving (both eighth) also moved up on their respective national lists.
Participation in several more MHSAA sports also continued to outpace the state’s rankings for high school-aged population.
For girls, participation in bowling (fourth), tennis (fourth), cross country (sixth), basketball (seventh), competitive cheer (ninth) and soccer (ninth) all ranked higher than their population listing of 10th nationally. Among boys sports, bowling (second), ice hockey (fourth), tennis (fifth), golf (fifth), basketball (sixth), track & field (sixth), cross country (seventh), football – all formats combined (seventh) and baseball (eighth) exceeded that ninth ranking for population.
Only 11 states sponsor alpine skiing, but Michigan ranked third on both the girls and boys lists for that sport. Wrestling, with boys and girls totals counted together, ranked eighth.
Participation nationally rose more than three percent from 2021-22 to 7,857,969 participants, the first upward movement in participation data since the all-time record of 7,980,886 in 2017-18, which was followed by the first decline in 30 years in 2018-19 and the two-year halt in data collection by the NFHS related to the pandemic. (The MHSAA continued to collect and report its data during this time.) The national total includes 4,529,789 boys and 3,328,180 girls, according to figures obtained from the 51 NFHS member state associations, which include the District of Columbia.
Eleven-player football remained the most popular boys sport, and most popular participation sport overall, with the total climbing back over one million participants. The total of 1,028,761 participants marked an increase of 54,969 and 5.6 percent from the previous year. This year’s increase was the first in the sport since 2013 and only the second increase since the all-time high of 1,112,303 in 2008-09. There also was a slight gain (34,935 to 35,301) in the number of boys in 6-, 8- and 9-player football.
Next on the boys list were outdoor track & field, basketball, baseball, soccer, wrestling, cross country, tennis, golf, and swimming & diving, respectively.
On the girls side, outdoor track and field (up 6.5 percent) and volleyball (3.6) remained in the top two spots, while basketball reclaimed the third position. Cross country ranked fourth, followed by softball, soccer, golf, tennis, swimming & diving and competitive spirit, respectively.
Texas remained atop the list of state participation with 827,446, but California closed the gap in second adding 25,000 participants to climb to 787,697. New York is third with 356,803, followed by Illinois (335,801), Ohio (323,117), Pennsylvania (316,587), Florida (297,389), New Jersey (272,159), Michigan (268,070) and Minnesota (219,094), which climbed into the top 10 past Massachusetts.
The participation survey has been compiled in its current form by the NFHS since 1971.