Can you play basketball wearing a mask? NC high school athletes are about to find out

Langston Wertz Jr.
·9 min read

Charlotte Christian boys basketball coach Shonn Brown had a feeling that, one day soon, high school players in North Carolina might be required to wear masks while playing games.

He’s on a group text chain with several out-of-state coaches, some of whom are already wearing masks in practices and during contests.

So last week, Brown, 46, wanted to feel what playing basketball in a mask might feel like. He put one on, went for a jog and said it didn’t take long for him to feel the effects.

“Your mouth starts sweating, and you immediately want to take it off,” Brown said, “and that’s the whole problem. You’re breathing in and out and the air kind of gets trapped in.

“For me, I was like, ‘I’ve gotta take this off.’”

On Monday, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper issued a new executive order that announced a new set of mask requirements, announcing that 20 counties in the state are now considered as “red” under the state’s new coronavirus alert system. Counties can also be ranked as orange or yellow.

When the color-coded alerts were issued last week, there were just 10 counties in the red.

“We are in danger,” Cooper said at a news conference.

Cooper’s new order will impact sports, bringing the face mask requirements that Brown was anticipating. Pro and college athletes are not impacted by the ruling.

Beginning at 5 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 25), face coverings are required indoors — at all times — for all players and spectators in amateur and youth sports who are at least 5 years old. The first impacts will be seen next week when N.C. private schools resume games after a holiday break.

“It’s all for the health and safety of the student-athlete,” Brown said. “For us, I think it’ll really be a challenge to do, so maybe we kind of wait and see what happens in terms of COVID. ... To be precautionary is a good thing right now, but mentally it would definitely have an effect on players, and we should take a step back to see what it really looks like going through some practices versus just venturing into a game.”

Wearing masks ‘way better’ than not playing

Right now, the N.C. High School Athletic Association, which has 421 mostly public schools as members, has one indoor sports in season: volleyball. Swimming practice started Nov. 23 and swim meets can begin Dec. 7.

Public school volleyball players are wearing masks now while playing.

“It is not fun,” Ardrey Kell junior volleyball player Alexis Shelton said. “In the beginning, it wasn’t that bad but once you get sweaty, the mask gets wet and it’s hard to breathe. I feel like I got used to it in a week or two, but in the beginning it was really hard to get used to it. It’s difficult for all of us, but it’s way better” than not playing.

NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker said swimmers can remove face coverings when in the water. With public school basketball practice set to start Dec. 7 and games Jan. 4, Cooper’s mask-while-playing order will come front and center.

Public school basketball games are set to begin Jan. 4.

“Right now,” Tucker said, “the plans are we will start basketball tryouts Dec. 7 wearing masks, because at that time we’re not playing games. That’s what I want to focus on. It’s always fair to say anything is on the table, including postponing what we’re doing now, postponing basketball season. It’s out there and on the minds of everybody. I don’t anybody to be blindsided. I’m getting emails from parents suggesting we need to postpone, but that’s not the plan as of today.”

Tucker said the NCHSAA board of directors will meet next week and get a report from the NCHSAA Sports Medicine Committee. Tucker also noted that during skill development, currently going on for most public schools, athletes have been required to wear masks.

“Based on what I’m reading and hearing from doctors, it wouldn’t concern me to start basketball tryouts and practices on Dec. 7 wearing masks,” Tucker said. “I have the skill and ability to adapt my practices so I can pick my teams without us having to run baseline-to-baseline. Would I be concerned if I’m now getting ready (to play) and it’s all out man-to-man defense, baseline-to-baseline pressing? I think I would have some concerns, but I want to hear what doctors are saying and we’ll rely on our Sports Medicine Committee to make that decision.”

Tucker, a former coach, said she would want her girls to be able play.

“And if it means I have to adjust and do things a little differently for this year,” she said, “I could make that adjustment and have my girls wear masks and I’d be comfortable with it.”

Private schools could be playing masked up next week

On Tuesday, N.C. Independent Schools executive director Homar Ramirez sent an email to his 97 member schools. Ramirez informed them that the new executive order does apply to NCISAA schools.

Most private schools, which started the season two weeks ago, are off for the Thanksgiving holiday but are scheduled to resume play Monday or Tuesday of next week.

“Beginning tomorrow, November 25 at 5:00 p.m.,” Ramirez wrote in his email, “any school choosing to play basketball or practice wrestling must require that everyone indoors wear a mask, including those actively participating. Face coverings are also required for those indoors at swimming, other than those actually in the pool. Each school/team/player, must assess and make a decision as to whether they can safely perform an activity while wearing a face covering.”

Ramirez told the Observer on Wednesday that he has some concerns about players participating while wearing masks.

“There’s been no data disposed to us that shows transmissions are happening during athletic contests,” he said, “and I think that’s where the frustration comes in, understanding everyone is wearing masks and doing what they can to prevent the spread of this virus ... but when the college and pro teams are still allowed to play without masks, it’s frustrating we’re putting high school kids in masks, and you have to question the health impact of that decision.

‘It’s understandable, but frustrating.”

Charlotte Country Day basketball coach David Carrier said his team still has not played a game due to two COVID-19 related cases. He’s still waiting on 11 players from the school’s football team to have their first varsity or junior varsity basketball practice Saturday.

The Bucs’ football team was forced to not play a state semifinal at Charlotte Christian two weeks ago after a player was diagnosed with COVID and contact tracing benched other members of the team.

Masks or no masks, Carrier said he wants to play.

“It would be a change for me personally,” he said, “but I just want the kids to be able to play. Would I prefer to be able to play without masks? Of course I would. I want our guys to be safe, for everybody to be safe. We’ll do whatever we need to do to get a chance to play. But I’ve seen this coming down and kind of prepared myself for it.”

At Charlotte Christian, Brown’s team is scheduled to play at home Tuesday against United Faith. But he’s not sure that game should happen. Monday would be his first practice in masks.

“I think teenagers have to get accustomed to certain things,” he said. “We all want to see the case numbers go down. I think this is the opportune time for us and the CISAA (conference) to take a breather here and take two or three weeks and maybe practice but not play a game. If the numbers go down, maybe the governor says we can go back to what we did in the fall.”

Public schools have concerns, but hope

Unlike the private schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools have had basketball workouts for several weeks with masks on. So kids have had some time to adapt, Ardrey Kell coach Mike Craft said.

“At Ardrey Kell, our mentality will be, we will do whatever it takes to keep our players safe and for us to have a season,” Craft said. “Obviously, we hope we see a decrease in the numbers and we will not have to play with the mask on. These are challenging times and we will follow the protocols to the letter. Our AD, Brian Knab, has done a great job with the safety protocols. Our players know that for us to play, it will be a little uncomfortable this season.”

Myers Park coach Scott Taylor agrees with his rival coach.

“Kids teach me all the time that they’re a lot more resilient than adults,” Taylor said, “and this group has been especially resilient in the fact that we just tell them what’s next and they look at us and go, ‘OK.’”

Taylor said Myers Park had to briefly stop workouts for what turned out to be a false positive COVID case, but he said players show up every day, put the mask on, and go to work.

He thinks the same will be true in December, if the masks are still required at that point.

“Whatever they’ve got to do be in the gym,” he said. “For all the uncertainty, the kids have been really accommodating. The first day was like, ‘How are we gonna do this?’ But we’re still in workout phase and we’re not supposed to be in contact and playing five-on-five and that makes the structure of workouts a little bit easier, but even when we do start playing in a couple of weeks, it’ll be a little unnatural (if we have to wear masks) but kids will matriculate to whatever they need to, to be able to play.”