Football as a COVID-19 Preventive? Gov. Hutchinson Thinks So.

Asa Hutchinson

It’s not yet high school baseball season, but nonetheless Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson threw a curveball today.

In a press conference largely dedicated to detailing plans to play high school sports this fall, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson argued typical, expected reasons why it would be good to see football, band and cheerleading happen in 2020. “I’ve heard from parents, student athletes, coaches, and many other educators,” he said. “Sports, as they make the point, is a very important part of the development of our youth.”

Then Hutchinson let fly with a reason that wasn’t as predictable.

Arkansas prep sports should be played, he argued, because without them, Arkansans could suffer more — not less — cases of COVID-19.

“If we do not have sports, then many of the student-athletes will be traveling out of state to participate in sports, which adds another level of risk, and that increases the risk,” he said.

This begged for some elaboration. Hutchinson provided that later in the conference:

“The athletes over the summer, whenever they could not play their ball [e.g. 7 on 7] here in Arkansas, in terms of team competition, they were going to Kansas City. They were going to Oklahoma and playing teams from Texas, which was certainly a hot spot. That’s worrisome. I think we’re much better off in an environment here in Arkansas.”

He also made the point that in many cases it’s not a good idea for public safety if the students who would have been playing football, or playing in the band, or cheerleading, need to find something else to do in order to hang out with their friends.

“We want them to have the benefit of those extracurricular activities. These aren’t mandatory. I mean, what are these young people are going to be doing? They’re not going to be sitting in their room, always doing academics.”

“I wish they would do that, but they’re going to be out, they’re going to be about, they’re going to be engaged in other behavior that could make them test positive. And so this is a more controlled atmosphere with guidance, even though there are some risks associated with it.”

So how are we going to make a “controlled atmosphere?”

First, Hutchinson is asking the Arkansas Athletic Association to submit a plan to the Department of Health to have football, volleyball, and cheerleading this fall. That will allow the Department of Health to review and develop the guidelines for mitigating the virus risk associated with contact sports.

He also said he will soon establish a high school sports advisory group to make recommendations to him and to assist the Department of Health in the best practices for protecting the student athletes and school personnel, with the purpose “to lead us to be able to have a regular sports season this fall.”

“We’re going to learn from the next three weeks of training and practice in the fields, the sports, cheerleading, and other activities. We will learn what adjustments need to be made, and we will improve our safety protocols. Let me emphasize that the [state] Department of Health, led by Dr. Jose Romero, will continue its responsibility to provide and issue health guidelines. This group of experts that I’m convening will serve in an advisory capacity to look specifically at how we can have fall sports in the safest manner possible. We want to consider every angle to protect our athletes,” he continued.

Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe will chair the group. Kelvin Gragg, superintendent of the Dumas School District, is vice chair.

The other members of this sports advisory group are:

  • Dr. Lowry Barnes, orthopedic surgeon and chairman of UAMS Department of Orthopedics. 
  • Jacob Brown, Therapeutic Family Services. 
  • Paul Calley, dean of students, assistant football coach, Southwest High School.
  • Jason Cates, athletic trainer at Cabot School District; chairman of the Arkansas Sports Medicine Committee.
  • Laura Crow, volleyball coach at Conway High School.
  • Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, state epidemiologist, Arkansas Department of Health. 
  • Fitz Hill, State Board of Education. 
  • Dr. Michael Israel, associate professor of Adolescent Medicine and Director of Sports Medicine at Arkansas Children’s.
  • Dr. Lee Johnson, state representative. 
  • Janet McDonald, behavioral health professional at Pinnacle Point. 
  • Lance Taylor, director of the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA). 
  • Dr. Joel Tumlison, physician specialist, Arkansas Department of Health.

They will look at issues such as whether the state’s high school football players should wear the same protective face shields that the NFL wants all of its players to wear.

Hutchinson said that this group will be looking at the effectiveness of these shields and their practicality on the field. Another huge issue is how public high schools, especially those in cash-strapped districts, will be able to afford these specially designed Oakley shields.

Watch the conference here:

What’s next?

The current plan is to start fall sports on time.

Next week, no-contact football practices will begin.

If all goes well, and no outbreaks occur, then the plan is to start wearing helmets for contact practice the week after that (August 10). The state has prohibited both practice and competition in close-contact sports since June 1. Those include basketball, football, wrestling, cheerleading, dance, volleyball, soccer, and martial arts.

Cheerleading is also on track to begin early next week, with band hopefully starting by August 5. (The department of health is still tweaking guidelines.)

When it comes to fan attendance, social distancing will be required in the stadia. The specifics of what guidelines to follow when attendance numbers in the thousands at bigger venues is something that the


A reporter asked Hutchinson, if we have fall football, what about teams and fans coming into Arkansas towns from other states? Doesn’t that increase risk of transmission?

Hutchinson replied: “It’s more about behavior versus movement, the behavior that you have to be careful about is are they wearing mask, are they socially distancing? And what behavior are they engaging in? Any time you get outside of your state, there is a little bit of additional risk because you just don’t know enough about what you’re associating with….”

“… I think we’re much better off in an environment here in Arkansas. Even though a team might play someone across the line or out of state, you can still control that environment better. So I think it’s much preferable if we have those high school sports to avoid the uncontrolled atmosphere that would be out there in the sports world.”


Speaking of those bordering states, see our latest column about the SEC football:

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