The 1-On-1 Project: Part 5


High school sports have always been the lifeblood of team sports and, like all other aspects of the business, they have had a challenging 18 months. COVID-mandated cancellations and postponements have made the past few campaigns seasons like no other in history. Overseeing all of the changes and challenges has been the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), led by executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff. She has shepherded the association and its members through uncharted waters and she recently sat down with Team Insight senior writer Mike May to reflect on the past year-and-a-half and to discuss how NFHS will help to chart a new course for the future of high school sports.

Team Insight: As the leader of high school sports in the U.S., how does your mindset today compare to where it was a year ago?

Dr. Karissa Niehoff: Right now, we are back at it with high school sports this school year. It is full-steam ahead. When we compare this fall with last fall, it’s two totally different scenarios.  

How much different is it?

A year ago, we were looking at cancellations and postponements of games in all sports and seasons were being modified. Fortunately, 35 states started and completed their athletic schedules from last fall to this past spring. Now, we are committed to a full schedule of games and seasons, but we are also filled with guarded optimism as we watch the Delta variant of COVID, as it pertains to 12-18 year-olds. Only one-third of 12-18 year-olds are vaccinated.

Has the NFHS created suggestions on where and how many fans should sit in the stands during games?

The rules change on where fans sit in the stands vary from state to state and from school to school. We expect to have fans in the stands at all games.

What are some of the steps NFHS has put in place as recommendations for their schools?

We are promoting mitigation strategies against COVID that schools and teams can implement, such as getting students vaccinated, having coaches and athletes wearing masks, continuing with social distancing, reducing the amount of time teams spend in locker rooms, whether or not concession stands should be open and having tickets be purchased online in advance of games rather than with fans standing in a line at the gate on game day. We are getting used to cashless transactions and having games available to watch online through streaming.

What is the NFHS’s stance on the value and impact of students getting vaccinated?

High school students benefit by being in school and participating in sports and performing arts. The best way to keep them physically active at school is by promoting their health and safety. The NFHS encourages eligible students to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and take the necessary steps so that everyone can compete in high school activities this year. We have entered a joint campaign with the White House and the U.S. Department of Education to encourage vaccinations among high school students.

Let’s talk about some impacts many people don’t think about, such as the pandemic impact on returning referees, umpires and game officials in all sports?

The lack of high school sports officials is a nationwide concern. Last year across the country we saw a 10-30 percent drop in the number of officials due to concerns about the COVID pandemic. During this (2021) football season, the lack of officials may result in teams of just four officials working a game. And because of a lack of officials, some football games may be moved to midweek because there are not enough officials to work all games every Friday night.

Has the COVID pandemic impacted the NFHS’ relationship with the NCAA?

We have always worked closely with the NCAA and its staff of 500-plus employees. We are good neighbors here in Indianapolis and we are both very supportive of our respective missions, which focus on academic integrity and the health and safety of student-athletes.  

Collegiate athletes now able to make money from their names and likenesses is certainly a huge issue at that level. How about at the high school level?

As for the ISL issue and marketability of college student-athletes, we hope that the court system in the U.S. does not rule against the high school amateur experience and the value of wearing the high school jersey. We don’t need new rules that disrupt the atmosphere in school hallways, in locker rooms and the importance of the high school experience. As it turns out, there are some high-profile high school athletes out there who appear to have some marketability. This can get messy.

High school students benefit by being in school and participating in sports and performing arts. The best way to keep them physically active at school is by promoting their health and safety.
How should the issue of mental health be handled for high school student-athletes?

What took place with U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles at the Olympics is an example that mental health issues can impact any athlete at any time. We’re going to see more of this unless we address it. Admittedly, the pressure to perform in sports has always been there.

How will NFHS address it?

Historically, sports psychology used to be about controlling the mind in order to control your athletic performance. Now, we must engage the heart and the mind to understand and talk about feelings and your emotional well-being. When kids are involved in playing sports they must deal with performance anxiety, their emotions and they must be able to communicate about expectations. Once, during an interview with sportscaster Lesley Visser, tennis great Billie Jean King stated that pressure is a privilege in sports. In other words, Billie Jean felt that she was privileged to be playing professional tennis for a living.

How has NFHS managed the challenges of COVID internally? Did the NFHS continue its annual rules meetings via Zoom this year?  Will those rules meetings return to being inperson this year?

As of August 1 we expect to have all rules meetings to be conducted inperson in Indianapolis, as we have done in the past.

How often do you actually get to attend a high school athletic contest in person?

Even though I’m on the road a great deal around the country, I make a point of attending games in person.  And if it’s a championship event, I and my staff are happy to help hand out awards, trophies and medals. It allows us to stay in touch with the grassroots of the high school sports experience.