Tepper: The UIL changed the 2020 Texas high school football season. Here's what it means.

Photo by James Ellis

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We knew Texas high school football season would be different in 2020. Now, we now just how different.

The UIL announced sweeping adjustments to the upcoming Texas high school football season on Tuesday, headlined by delaying the start of the season for Class 6A and Class 5A by more than five weeks and pushing the first games back by four weeks. Week 1 of games, originally scheduled for August 27-29, will now take place September 24-26; the start of practice will move from August 3 to September 7. But that is only for the two largest classifications — Class 4A and below will start as scheduled. The changes come as Texas continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has increased in ferocity in recent weeks.

There’s a lot to digest here, but some immediate thoughts spring to mind.

1: Take a breath.

The public reaction to the UIL’s announcement, at least initially, is a fair amount of surprise. That’s understandable — this is an unprecedented move by the governing body of Texas high school athletics, and for an organization that generally avoids bold changes, this is one of the boldest. Furthermore, it’s the second truly bold move by the UIL since the pandemic started, coupled with the cancellation of the remainder of spring sports back in April.

It’s important to digest the information in its entirety, and resist urges to jump to conclusions. Whether you love the announcement or hate the announcement or somewhere inbetween, remember that it certainly was not made hastily. It’s going to be OK. Promise.

2: The UIL found a compromise.

Now, on to the actual heart of the announcement.

The pandemic and its various ripple effects are a unique challenge for the UIL, whose goal is to centralize in a landscape that is fundamentally decentralized. In many ways, the UIL was forced to act by a variety of different external factors — schools in large swaths of the state, including Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley, Laredo and El Paso, would not be allowed to start practices on the scheduled August 3 date, nor play games on the scheduled Week 1 of August 27-29. A rough and admittedly incomplete count of the impact of local restrictions on extracurricular activities (whether from school districts, cities or counties) suggest that nearly one-quarter of the UIL member schools wouldn’t be able to kick off football as originally scheduled.

“But,” some will say, “what about the schools that aren’t as affected, that could kick off on time? Why should they have their schedule delayed?” It’s a fair question. Some schools, particularly in rural areas, may feel that they are having to adjust their own season for the sake of some far-off schools they’ll never encounter.

That's why the UIL made the rather unprecedented decision to split the start times of the seasons, with Class 4A and below — schools that are smaller and, in many cases, more rural — starting as scheduled, while Classes 6A and 5A — larger schools that tend to be near major metro areas — will start later.

If the UIL didn’t adjust the schedule, many teams would be put at a disadvantage through no fault of their own; some would even be effectively eliminated from playoff contention as a result. But by delaying the start of the season and setting a firm start date, they’re giving those schools more of an opportunity to control their football destiny. There will almost certainly still be schools that don’t field football teams in 2020, but this adjusted schedule at least gives them a chance.

The UIL was never going to leave nearly a quarter of its members behind. By delaying the season for the bigger schools but keeping smaller schools unchanged, it found a middle-ground for all of its schools.

3: Here’s what we heard behind-the-scenes.

Texas Football began to hear rumblings early last week that a decision was imminent. The original plan that was bandied about (though never confirmed by the UIL) was notably different from today’s announcement: a delayed start, but with a truncated regular season — something along the lines of seven regular season games instead of the usual ten — leading into the full six weeks of playoffs. For much of last week, that appeared to be the idea.

But the plan apparently began to shift late in the week, as sources began to relay to Texas Football that the UIL was now eyeing a full regular season and playoffs, but with the same delay for all schools. Sources indicate to Texas Football that some within the UIL were extremely adamant that a full season must be played, or at least attempted.

Then, early this week, the rumblings shifted again — this time to the split-start schedule.

Furthermore, sources indicate that the UIL views playing football in the spring as a last resort, and that canceling the season was not under serious consideration.

4: The situation remains fluid.

The UIL’s announcement is a stark one, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the final one. If anything has been consistent during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that the situation can and will change rapidly. Just two weeks ago, the UIL pressing on as scheduled; now, a radical change. Players, coaches and fans should prepare for the season as presently scheduled, but know that there is still the very real possibility that it will be further postponed, truncated, canceled or otherwise adjusted.

As with everything in this pandemic, stay on your toes.

5: There are still a lot of questions.

We know the headlines and the outline of the UIL’s plan, but there’s still a lot of unknowns that we’ll have to decipher over the coming weeks. Some queries right off the top:

-What happens to the small-school teams that are unable to start on time? While major metro areas tend to be big schools, there are a good number of small schools whose season will start as scheduled but will be unable to do so because of local restrictions.

-Depending on the number of schools and school districts that opt out of the 2020 season, will the UIL consider a new one-year district alignment?

-The UIL left protocols for COVID-related forfeitures up to the individual districts; how will each district handle that looming issue?

-With football now officially stretching into January, how will the UIL handle the holidays?

Those are just a few of the many lingering questions we’ll need to find the answers to over the next two months before the season kicks off.

6: This is the least-bad option.

In the end, it’s important to remember that the UIL only had bad options at their disposal. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended seemingly everything in society, and the recent spike in severity here in Texas makes high school football season a particularly sticky problem.

The UIL’s first priority is to keep student-athletes and coaches safe. And with a virus that’s already taken the lives of nearly 4,000 Texans and put tens of thousands into the hospital — and one whose long-term effects we still don’t know — playing a normal season of Texas high school football was simply out of the question.

The UIL’s plan is not perfect. It’s not going to be without its tangles moving forward. And there’s still a fair chance the season is transformed again. But for now, the UIL chose the best plan — that is, the least-bad plan — to pursue some kind of a Texas high school football season.

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