Nevada high school football has been taken off the state's no-play list and given the green light to move forward with a 2021 spring season, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Wednesday afternoon.
Football was supposed to start official practice last Saturday but remained in limbo since it was one of three NIAA-sanctioned sports still on the state's COVID-19 no-play list. Teams, which have been allowed to do conditioning non-contact work, can start practices as early as Thursday with games potentially scheduled for March 5 but more likely March 12.
Due to the football acclimation process, teams will practice in helmets for three days before moving to pads and then full-contact practice. That will be followed by a six-week season of games. Because of COVID-19, the football season was moved from the fall to the spring by the NIAA last summer. The season could include up to seven games with a regional championship game tentatively being scheduled for April 10.
Sisolak said decreasing positive COVID-19 cases and the demand from rural counties to play a football season informed his decision. Additionally, he felt comfortable with taking football off the no-play list at the high level school because of the COVID-19 testing that will be required by the NIAA.
"We're looking at the drop in the positivity rate, the drop in the number of cases," Sisolak said. "A lot of the kids, and I fully understand, they want to get back on the field, they want to have practices, they want to have their games. Some students are hoping for scholarships to move on to college. We're going in the right direction, and we decided it was time. Now, it's up to the local districts. Clark County, I don't know if they'll participate. That will be up to them. But there's been a lot of demand in Washoe and the rural counties to allow us to move forward."
Participants in contact sports like football must get local approval and follow NIAA guidelines, which will include a minimum once-a-week test for all players and coaches. Local school districts and superintendents must approve the commencements of full-contact sports.
"Under his new emergency directive, full-contact sports regulated and governed by the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association, the NIAA, may resume practices and competitions with social distancing and all the requirements to be met," Sisolak said. "In order to allow NIAA-regulated full-contact sports to take place, the NIAA must develop a mandatory COVID-19 testing and mitigation plan that then must be adopted and followed by each school district and school intending to allow full-contact sports. A plan must require a minimum of weekly testing of coaches, staff and athletes participating in those sports."
Attendance at games will be limited to 100 people or 35 percent capacity, whichever is less, until March 15. After March 15, those figures will increase to 250 people or 50 percent capacity, whichever is less. If a game was played at a stadium with 2,500 fixed seats or more, 20 percent capacity would be allowed if the host venue has its plan approved by local health authorities.
"Host schools will be responsible for ensuring the compliance with the applicable gathering and event guidelines," Sisolak said.
Sisolak said full-contact sports remain prohibited for travel, club and private/park leagues.
"The resumption of full-contact sports only applies to sports regulated and governed by the NIAA," he said. "We're taking the step of allow full-contact sports to resume competitions for NIAA only because they are able to be highly regulated and overseen by a school district, including a regular testing environments."
NIAA commissioner Bart Thompson said it's unlikely games will be played March 5 when they're officially allowed given the late start to practice. More likely, the first week of games will be March 12 with scrimmages the weekend of March 5. Thompson said he expects a five-game season at minimum with some teams playing up to six games.
"At this point, it is possible, although I don't know how likely that schools would be able to get the necessary practices in to play an interscholastic game on the 5th of March," Thompson said. "If you look at the schedule, if we start practices (Thursday) we might be able to do that. I don't know how many schools would be able to do that with the short notice that we've got. I don't know that we'll have many, but schools have been aching for this for a long time, so I'm not going to put anything past what could happen. If they missed (Thursday's) practice and started on Friday, they could conceivably play their first game on Saturday the 6th of March. That might be extremely optimistic."
Thompson said the NIAA would meet with coaches, athletic directors and administration Wednesday night to go over testing protocols, which would be conducted on campus. Thompson said that process has been ongoing for weeks and many school districts are "well down the road" on its testing measures.
The change to the no-play list gives high school athletes in Northern Nevada a reprieve after the prep basketball and wrestling season were canceled. Those sports were on the no-play list during the winter season, which ends Saturday. In Northern Nevada, only skiing was allowed by the NIAA and governor's office during the winter season.
"From our hearts, we're sorry," NIAA assistant director Donnie Nelson said of the winter sports athletes who didn't get to play their season. "Time has simply run out on the winter sports season, and the basketball and wrestling seasons are now officially over. We certainly feel for our seniors."
The fall season will offer a more robust offering with cross country, girls golf, volleyball, soccer, tennis and now football allowed under state guidelines. Non-football fall sports can begin practice this Saturday. Football gets a head start because of the acclimation period required for the contact sport.
Local players, coaches and fans had vocally pushed for football to be allowed this season. While many Western states continued with their football seasons last fall, including Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Idaho, others like Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii delayed seasons to the spring. California still has not cleared high school football to be played.
Due to the shortened seasons, the NIAA will not hold state tournaments this year. Clark County School District, which is not conducting in-person learning, canceled fall sports, including football, last month. Thompson said the NIAA has been told Clark County won't play sports until in-person learning has commenced. However, the rest of the state can move forward with its truncated football season. The fall season will extend to April 10.
Spring sports are scheduled to play April 16-May 22 with practices starting April 3. Spring sports include baseball, boys golf, softball, swimming and diving, track and field and boys volleyball (South).