By Dan Hardenbrook
Nobody in high school sports has had a tougher 2020 than Mark Uyl.
Uyl, the executive director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, has hardly had a minute to breathe. Probably even less time to think. He’s been on the other end of thousands of phone calls and emails bombarding the MHSAA office since mid-March. He has been the target of a lot of animosity – including some from me. It’s no secret that I haven’t been Mr. Uyl’s number one fan, but maybe I owe him an apology.
Now that I see and hear him fighting for those he represents, I respect where he is coming from.
Something has changed in him. It might have something to do with the fact that he has to head home and see his own high school senior, a prized college recruit from one of the best football teams in the state, sad that his seasons are ending just like everyone else. But if you read his comments, and listen to his interviews, two things are clear. The frustration is boiling over, and Mark Uyl may have had enough.
He’s taken that same sword he was willing to fall on in September and come back swinging it at those holding high schools back with full force. He’s done playing games. He has gone from being defensive, and dropping corporate lines and excuses, to going on the attack. He’s speaking out for us and even more importantly, with us. He’s now asking many of the same questions that he once chose to ignore. He is now one of us, and he wants answers.
After the original three week pause was put in place by the MDHHS and Governor Gretchen Whitmer, the one that stopped another sports season dead in its tracks with games to be played and tournaments to be concluded, Uyl says he reached out directly to the Governor’s office. He wrote a letter stating the MHSAA’s case, one that provided statistics and data from the same groups the Governor’s office once used to oppose playing sports. This time the numbers, and the experts that he consulted, concluded that it was in fact safe to keep playing. But now all of a sudden that didn’t matter. The MHSAA was on the outside looking in. Then they were cut out of the conversation completely. Last week when the extension was announced, Uyl said that he was waiting for a heads up. He was hopeful and optimistic that sports would be spared. That he had provided a concrete case, and a comprehensive plan to play again. He waited. And waited. And waited. Then his phone rang. He was told it was a no go. A half hour before the press conference. No notice, no reason, no discussion or feedback about the plan.
Uyl is continuing his fight. In a recent radio interview he expressed his frustration. “I’m all about following the science and the data and the metrics. What we were told in that phone conversation was that the epidemiology would not allow sports to resume, which would have been Wednesday. When asked for specifics of that epidemiology or copies or evidence, we are still waiting for that. It was a disappointing day.”
Uyl says that the data the MHSAA has collected since early August shows how safe high school sports are. Ninety five-to-ninety eight point five percent of all the state’s football teams played all nine weeks during the fall season. Ninety four percent to just over ninety eight percent of all volleyball teams played each week. In all the rest of the fall sports, such as cross country, the number of participating teams never dropped below ninety seven percent at any time. But that somehow wasn’t enough. So he offered to continue games even if it meant not allowing fans in the stands to help stop any potential spread from sporting events. That didn’t work either. “The most frustrating thing is that we have yet to be given a good answer of why our plan didn’t make sense. That is probably the thing I have had the hardest time with.”
Maybe Mark Uyl has had it. Maybe I owe him an apology. He seems to remember who he is representing. For that I am grateful. So thank you Mr. Uyl. You finally get it. Now good luck going after it.