Last month, the Amateur Athletic Union postponed its junior volleyball championships in Orange County, Florida because of the coronavirus pandemic — pushing the start of the massive event from mid-June to mid-July out of “an abundance of caution.” There were 1,615 recorded cases of COVID-19 in Orange County at the time.
Now, cases in Florida — and several other southern states — are surging. There were more than 10,000 cases in Orange County as of Monday, including more than 4,700 new cases in the past week alone. But the AAU is moving ahead with its plans.
The organization said Friday it still expects to welcome 355 registered teams from 27 states to the Orange County Convention Center beginning July 14 — spacing out match times and courts to the extent possible over parts of eight days, among other precautions.
“We will continue to work with (the) OCCC, Orange County Government, Visit Orlando, and Orlando Health to monitor the status of the virus,” AAU spokesperson Rachel D’Orazio told USA TODAY Sports in an email.
The AAU’s decision to stay the course with its volleyball event, even amid increasingly dire coronavirus data, is not unique. In states that have become hot spots in recent weeks — including Florida, Texas, Arizona and South Carolina — privately-run youth sports leagues and tournaments have largely carried on as usual, though the response has hardly been uniform.
Some experts believed that youth sports would be well-equipped to handle the ebb and flow of COVID-19 because decisions could be made locally and quickly. But in hot-spot states, that apparent strength has instead been a weakness. As cases and hospitalizations rise, parents have been forced to navigate a confusing smorgasbord of restrictions and recommendations that vary depending on which entity is organizing a particular league or event — sometimes even in the same town.
Jon Solomon, the editorial director for the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, a non-profit think tank, believes many youth sports entities will continue to push forward unless or until government officials determine otherwise, even in states where the virus is spreading rapidly.
“Particularly for the more competitive leagues,” Solomon said. “Because there’s a lot of money at stake for these competitive organizations. They’ve already restarted, and there are a lot of parents who are fine and they don’t necessarily see hospitalizations or positive tests within the people that they’re associating with. … It’s sort of like out of sight, out of mind.”
There is no centralized authority for youth sports, Solomon said, so the industry has responded to the recent COVID-19 trends in patchwork fashion. In many cases, private organizations have been more determined to continue playing than those with public ties.
In South Carolina, for example, the state’s high school sports association recently ramped up its requirements for summer workouts in response to surging case numbers. Cities like Easley, South Carolina — a town of about 21,000 — have suspended their local rec leagues in an effort to curb the disease.
Travel and AAU sports in the state, however, have continued with few or no restrictions, according to South Carolina High School League commissioner Jerome Singleton. In fact, after the American Legion baseball season was canceled due to COVID-19, several South Carolina teams near Easley decided to form their own alternative league — the South Carolina American League — so they could continue playing.
“It’s the same rules, the same requirements,” Greer Post 115 coach Chad Hart told The Spartanburg Herald-Journal. “It just made sense to us.”
Brian Cole, the football coach at Phoenix Christian High School in Arizona, has seen a similar dichotomy in his state.
“The high school sports teams are trying to follow the guidelines set by their districts, the (Arizona Interscholastic Association), and the state,” Cole told The Arizona Republic. “… Yet half their team is participating in 7-on-7 tournaments, basketball tournaments and more, where the guidelines are basically non-existent.”
In some states, the absence of timely, localized guidance from state and municipal governments has put more pressure on individual youth sports organizers and parents.
Tournament directors like Kenneth Wilson, who organizes youth softball camps and tournaments in Texas for Southern Collegiate Sports, are often left to monitor COVID-19 trends in their community and decide whether and how they can safely hold an event. If more than 100 teams are involved, and cases are spiking, those decisions could have significant public health implications.
Last weekend, for example, Wilson canceled one camp outside San Antonio after learning that several coaches and players associated with the event had tested positive for COVID-19. He decided to hold a second camp in Longview, Texas — with 59 registered teams — as scheduled.
“It’s pretty stressful right now,” Wilson said. “Everybody wants answers, right? Everybody’s calling the tournament director, 24/7.”
That pressure can also trickle down to parents, who must decide whether to send their children to tournaments amid rising COVID-19 figures, even if government guidelines and local organizers have effectively deemed them safe.
Some parents, like Florida resident Jill Diedrick, believe that a return to high-level travel sports offers important visibility for their children, from a recruiting standpoint.
“We get nervous,” Diedrick recently told news service Fresh Take Florida, of her 15-year-old daughter’s return to competitive softball. “But I think it’s good that she’s doing it overall.”
Wilson, for his part, said he would welcome more state-wide input on youth sports in Texas from the state government — even if that meant putting all games on pause.
“Financially, it would hurt. But I’m not saying I would be heartbroken,” Wilson said. “I have absolutely no problem with it, if that’s the decision they make.”
Contributing: USA TODAY Network reporters Jed Blackwell, Richard Obert and Kennington Smith
Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.