ANALYSIS: New LHSAA COVID Rule Will Force Schools to Take Precautions
UPDATE, August 11, 2021, 3:40 p.m.: The story has been edited to include comment from the LHSAA about voluntary forfeitures and to clarify their interpretation of that particular rule.
On Monday, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association announced that it would declare games canceled because of coronavirus issues forfeits. The team whose outbreak causes that cancellation would be charged with the forfeit loss. LHSAA Executive Director Eddie Bonine said in a memo to the organization's member schools, principals, coaches, and school districts:
[T]he LHSAA is very confident in the capabilities of our membership, their coaches, medical personnel, and their local epidemiologists after the 2019-2020 pandemic experience to manage any COVID issues that may arise in 2021 and beyond within your athletic programs. But please know, unlike last year, we will not referee the alleged manipulation of COVID issue relief to facilitate avoidance of opponents for sport specific power ranking reasons. Now having preventive measures that can be taken to avoid issues with the virus, any/all reasons that may occur as it relates to COVID that prevents your school(s) not to fulfill a regular and/or post season game, contest, match, or meet will result in a forfeiture.
That paragraph answers gives two answers as to why the LHSAA would deem COVID-canceled games forfeits.
Bonine's reference to the LHSAA "referee(ing) the alleged manipulation of COVID" by some teams seeking to avoid opponents shows that the organization has received complaint about schools using the coronavirus pandemic as a convenient excuse to dodge certain opponents on their schedules. This should sound familiar to Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns football fans, who have accused Coastal Carolina of pulling such a stunt ahead of last year's Sun Belt Conference Championship Game. The LHSAA, like the Sun Belt Conference, declared such cancellations "no contests" and excluded them from the official record. This new ruling from the LHSAA will close this loophole and force schools to fulfill their contractual obligations with their opponents.
Secondly, the LHSAA is putting the onus on its member schools and their districts to do what they can to protect their players and their institutions. The sanctioning body's decision to force teams with COVID issues to forfeit games serves as a bayonet that will prod coaches, administrators, and parents to take the necessary precautions--whether they be masking, social distancing, and/or getting the vaccine--to keep their children, students, and athletes safe without getting into a political minefield.
How does this edict serve as a bayonet? Simply put: Money talks.
Forfeits would cost host schools money in gate and concession revenues. It behooves high school athletic departments who are dependent on their football and basketball programs for their income to keep their players and coaches healthy so they don't lose any more revenue, especially after last year's capacity restrictions limited the amount of money athletic departments could collect on game nights.
Forfeitures, like other losses, will count against teams in their power rankings. If a school has to forfeit a contest or a meet to a lowly-ranked school, the resulting loss would adversely affect their power ranking and, in theory, could keep a team out of the playoffs. That, in turn, would cost a team more revenue dollars and the expanded television exposure the playoffs bring.
The LHSAA Handbook also points to another possible prod for schools to follow mitigation guidelines.
Schools that voluntarily forfeit two or more scheduled games in the sports of baseball, boys’ or girls’ basketball, football, boys’ or girls’ soccer, softball or volleyball shall be ineligible to participate at the varsity level for the next two years. Member schools may compete against the sub-varsity team during the two year probationary period but will not earn power points. However, if the school forfeits two or more games during the probationary period, the school’s team shall be dropped and not allowed to participate in that sport, at any level, for two additional years and must reapply per Bylaw 6.6, Requirements for Adding a Sport.
However, the LHSAA says this option is off the table. According to LHSAA communications director Vincent Cacioppo, COVID cancellation will not be considered voluntary forfeits. If the schools lose any revenues from sports contests being canceled, it won't be because of LHSAA sanctions resulting from these forfeitures.
"We are encouraging student-athletes, coaches, and even parents to be as safe as possible to keep their schools from forfeiting any falls sport game or contest," Cacioppo told us Wednesday afternoon.
The LHSAA wanted to stay away from the political hornets nest that COVID mitigation has become. They've successfully accomplished this while putting the burden on its member schools. It's a mission the schools won't take lightly because too much money is at stake.