MIAA mandates masks for winter sports - but how closely is it being enforced?

Rich Garven
Telegram & Gazette
While the MIAA has mandated anyone participating in winter indoor athletic contests be wearing a mask, it has been hard to enforce through the first week of the season.

Winter high school sports once again have a familiar feel to them.

The 2020-21 campaign that was unlike any other with many schools opting out and those that elected to compete playing shortened schedules while grouped in geographic pods due to the pandemic. Now it’s back to leagues, holiday tournaments and postseason play.

But there is one holdover from last season, that being the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has continued to mandate the wearing of face coverings for those involved with indoor sports due to continued concerns with the coronavirus.

The mask mandate applies to athletes, coaches, cheerleaders, school officials, game officials and spectators for the sports of basketball, hockey, gymnastics, track, swimming and wrestling. And it applies to all events on and off school grounds as well as practices and scrimmages.

But through in-person observation and photos that have been published by the Telegram & Gazette, Gardner News and MetroWest Daily News along with The Boston Globe and Western Mass.-based masslive.com, it’s clear the vast majority of athletes and many coaches from one end of the state to the other are taking the mask mandate at face value.

That is, they are wearing a mask, but more often than not it’s covering their chin rather than mouth and nose.

The MIAA has enforced mask mandates for the winter sports season, and left it up to the schools to police themselves in making sure everyone is compliant.

The MIAA has noticed the spirit of the rule isn’t being adhered to thus far in a season that got underway late last week.

“You do see the tweets out there coming from different schools, ‘Remember you need to wear your mask and so on and so forth,’ ” director of communications Tara Bennett said Monday. “But what happens in reality is certainly something that schools need to be attentive to.”

So, who is responsible for ensuring masks are properly positioned for maximum protection?

“That would be the schools’ responsibility, that’s the expectation,” Bennett said. “So whether that would be the coach or the athletic director or the trainer, that would be a school decision to determine who was going to do that. But the expectation is that the school, the coaches, the student-athletes are following the guidelines.”

Excluded are game officials, who are charged with officiating the game and, while there are certain rules regarding uniforms, masks are not part of them.

And if a school elects to look the other way or use a lax approach to enforcement, well, they do so knowing they won’t be punished by the MIAA.

“We do not have any penalties like in terms of getting ejection or whatever,” Bennett said. “So, we don’t have any penalties.”

The MIAA confirmed it would continue with its mask policy for indoor sports – it applied to girls’ volleyball and gymnastics in the fall – on Nov. 23, four days before the winter season commenced.

The rationale was that the same rules that apply to students when they’re in school learning should be applied when they’re participating in extracurricular activities like athletics. 

“The masking issue is plain and simple,” MIAA executive director Robert Baldwin said last week during a Board of Directors meeting. “We are an entity that revolves around schools. It makes no sense to do something that contradicts what goes on during the school day.

“So we’ve tried the best we can – whether we agree with it or not – to mirror what goes on during the school day.”

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will keep its mask requirement for schools in place at least until Jan. 15, 2022, so there is a possibility it could be lifted midway through the winter season.

Contact Rich Garven at rgarven@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @RichGarvenTG.