Jerome Singleton turned off the hospital room television and left it dark for a week.
Back in March, the South Carolina High School League’s longtime commissioner spent his 61st birthday by himself in an adjustable bed, having tested positive for COVID-19. He was on oxygen to help his breathing, and wave after wave of information from the outside was more than he could handle.
“When they shared with me that I had the virus, I didn’t watch any television. I didn’t want to hear any bad news. I didn’t want to hear how bad it was. I kind of circled the wagons,” Singleton said. “My wife will tell you, I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t take any calls; anybody who wanted to know about me, they needed to call her. The best thing I had going for me was that I was ignorant to it.”
Singleton recovered, but being released from the hospital was only the beginning of COVID-19’s effects on him and his family. A nephew later tested positive. An elderly aunt who was previously in good health was suspected of having the virus and died soon after.
Singleton’s sister was also diagnosed with COVID-19 and spent multiple weeks on a ventilator.
Her funeral was last week.
With every decision he has made or been a part of, he takes that emotion with him.
Singleton, who became the league’s commissioner in 2005, spoke with MyHorryNews.com this week about the personal and professional impacts of the last few months, how to proceed in a world of unknowns and the realities of sports being on a rollover plan as athletics leagues around the country reassess their place at the amateur level.
IAN GUERIN: How does what you and your family have gone through change your perspective from the chair that you’re sitting in as the league’s commissioner?
JEROME SINGLETON: My aunt goes in [to the hospital] and she lasts a week. Then my sister goes in, and she only lasts three weeks. She passed away from the virus. It just continues to reaffirm to me that this thing is real. This thing is big. This is truly something that we need to do all we can to help change the course of this thing. I’m always amazed when I hear people talk so confidently about it. We’ve never experienced this before. This is new. Even the medical groups are saying 'This is something we haven’t seen before. We don’t know all the answers.' So it amazes me when we have people outside the medical profession who speak so confidently on what this thing can and can’t do. It focuses me back on what’s important. What’s good for schools? What’s good for student-athletes? Because that’s what I’m dealing with. It just keeps my focus there.
IG: Have too many people taken the emotion out of the situation when they start talking about sports being played or not played?
JS: We all know about America. We have had several things come across us over the years that make us stand up and take notice. [Sept. 11, 2001], we stood up and took notice immediately. Hurricanes come through, we stand up and take notice immediately. But we’re such a free country that we get over things real quick. When the initial shock changes us, and then we slowly progress back to where we were, we’re a society that likes to get back to normal as soon as possible. Even if we have to force it, we want to [do] what’s normal. Unless it hits you directly, you lose sight of what’s there.
IG: We’ve had significant news the last few days with at least two major NCAA sports conferences suspending fall sports. How does that factor into what the South Carolina High School League is doing?
JS: I’ve got all the respect in the world for those organizations and that level of play. But I would bet that their answer wasn’t a quick answer. It was probably on the table the entire time. Until you know what you have, you don’t know what you’re going to do. We’re looking at the same type of things. That’s why ours is so fluid. We’re going to have to get to a point where we’re going to have to cut bait. But let’s see. We’ve got a lot of other factors that will impact our decision other than what the colleges have. Can we even continue to have school face-to-face? We haven’t even seen how that’s going to work yet. We may find that we can’t have face-to-face classes. If that’s the case, I think our superintendents and our school boards will be hard pressed to say it’s OK to play sports.
IG: Some large school districts around the country have broken off from their state associations and elected to put sports on hold. Are you surprised that nobody in South Carolina has shut it down yet?
JS: No. But I think they’re doing the same thing; they’re being cautious as they go along. Shutting down right now, what does that accomplish? There are no contests being played. We’re still in voluntary workout mode. They’ve been able to do the social distancing workouts with their kids. I would say that’s one of the safest places for those kids right now. They’re forced to do these things. We know it’s sanitized, limited gatherings, social distancing. That’s going to be compromised as we move into the sports season, as early as Monday (for low-risk sports that are starting practices). We’re going to have to see what happens there. It’s still on the table for any one of them. If you called any of the superintendents across the state, they would tell you ‘If it’s not safe, we are going to pull the plug.’ I would support that 100%.
IG: On the flip side of that, what would stop a district or two from determining their areas are safe and they can play sports this fall away from the SCHSL membership?
JS: There are so many things that being a member of the South Carolina High School League provides — liability protection, guidance — that I don’t know our membership would want to step away from that. I recognize that it occurs at the college level. But if you think about it, they are doing it as selective sports. When they say they are going to break off, is it for all sports? That becomes challenging, catastrophic insurance being one of the main things. How do you maintain that if you’re not a member of the organization that covers that? I’m not saying they won’t. We’re not trying to punish anybody.
IG: Let’s say in the next two weeks the SEC, ACC and Big XII cancel their football seasons. Any state association that moves forward with fall sports is going to get publicly hammered from national organizations and student safety groups. How do you go about saying it’s not safe for them, but it could still be safe for us?
JS: We would have to look at why those levels are not playing. Publicly, we’ve heard already that they can safely conduct these events. … Logistically, there are a lot of challenges, [such as] television contracts. Our organization, we’re used to doing things the same way. We’ve had to stop for hurricanes. We start school at the same time. We end the school year around the same time. We may end up exactly where [the college programs] are. All we’re saying is let’s wait and see what happens. We don’t have TV contracts in place. They have a lot of different things on their plate that don’t exist on ours. We have things on our plate that aren’t on their plate. Case in point: We’re not able to test. Financially, we can’t afford it. Realistically, that becomes a major challenge for our schools. We can’t just [test] football [players]. It would have to be every sport that we offer.
IG: The high school league's executive committee gave the league office some extra power to reduce the number of hoops you’d have to jump through to push back the fall sports season. Where do we stand now, one week after the last group meeting?
JS: We deal with what is in front of us immediately. The ones that we’re going to start [Monday] are the ones that are already going on now, where practicing social distancing is already happening. These are not really as aggressive of sports as others we have. We have a week to watch those. If we find those work, and there are no challenges, then we’ll add cross country and volleyball. It’s a little more aggressive, but then we get to watch those. Then, another two weeks, by that time, most of our schools are in place. They have some form of educating going on, distance learning or hybrid or five-day. That gives us triggers and exposes what our membership is going to see the next steps. When we get to football and competitive cheer, then we’re looking at almost three weeks before the first games. We’ve got windows for watching and seeing what can possibly happen.
IG: Coaches have vocally stated that they aren’t sure how physically ready their kids will be after lengthy layoffs, a health concern aside from possible COVID-19 exposure. Now, we’re seeing concerns with Myocarditis with athletes who were previously believed to be asymptomatic, even if they tested positive. How do you proceed with the fact that every week it seems like we’re getting more bad news or more reason for concern?
JS: We don’t want to forget about the ones that are already there, the kids who are currently diabetic, the kids that are currently dealing with high blood pressure, the kids that currently have sickle cell. Those are all pre-existing conditions that the virus can get aggressive on. That’s been with us forever. Now, we’ve added some layers on to those other things that are there. Those are things that we need to be concerned with. I don’t want to minimize the concerns that we should have already had for those other kids that have those challenges already.
IG: Parents, coaches and administrators have wondered aloud about community-to-community protocols. For example, Team A does everything the right way, but they have very little input to know that Team B is following the protocols. There won’t be penalties for potential cancellations when sports resume, but how does the SCHSL, with no apparatus in place to keep everyone in check, ensure different programs are all following the same plan?
JS: I would hope that we’re talking about people with great integrity who are not going to put their kids [in danger] or contaminate another group knowing their kids are contaminated, that they would hold those conversations. 'Maybe I don’t have enough to play.' 'Do you want to bring your community into my town?' 'Do you want me to bring my community into your town.' Those are the obligations we have to keep all kids safe.
IG: We’re not naive to the fact that some parents are making decisions for non-academic reasons. We’ve seen transfers into South Carolina from families who believe football was going to go forward here this fall. Kids have been rumored to be pursued by SCISA schools. We’ve had others talk about moving to Georgia. This is the reality. If the high school league announced in June or July that there was going to be no fall sports, what kind of exodus would you have expected?
JS: There were a couple reasons we wouldn’t have announced it that early. We want to wait and see if there is a way we could see if we could possibly play. But let’s say we did. It wouldn’t be just about athletics. You and I know athletics play a huge role. There are kids who love it, that’s why they’re going to try in class. You take that away from them, they shut down. They give up on the educational experience altogether. I don’t know that there is a better way to do it other than to say 'We’re going to give it our best effort, our best try.' We’ve spent so much time talking about the competition part of this, we’ve forgotten about the teachable moments with it. If losing the opportunity to play sports is the worst thing that happens to our kids throughout their lives, we’ve done great. Maybe they need to have this teachable moment when we can talk to them about it. Sometimes, you can do everything right, and it still doesn’t work out. They need to hear this. Some parents have come to me and said 'Just let them sign a waiver and let them play.' You know, sometimes you just have to protect them from themselves. If something happens to that kid, I assure you that conversation changes, and it changes drastically. Right is always right, even when it’s not popular. Sometimes, you have to protect the emotional group from themselves.
IG: As you said, there are kids who if they don’t have sports on the horizon, we don’t know if they graduate next spring. How did that factor into your decision-making process to get the school year going and have something positive going?
JS: If you make a call as a district, today, that you don’t care what the league does [and decide not] to offer sports, you’re going to lose some kids. The ones that were coming back, whether they are going to class virtual or face-to-face, they may say 'Forget this. I’m going to go get a job.' There are some homes where education is not the top priority. Their mother didn’t get a diploma. Dad didn’t get a diploma. Sister didn’t get a diploma. Unless you get them around people that can talk them through this, that becomes the norm for them. They start thinking about finding a job. The longer we can prolong this — and this isn’t a horse and carrot — let’s see if we can get it done. We stated from the very beginning in this office, as long as there’s school, let’s see if we can find a way to play sports. Not that I’m trying to trick them into going to school. If there’s a trick for them to come to school, that trick has already been used when things were normal. 'If I could get you to come for three years, you’ll take on the fourth year because you already have this much invested.' My high school coach did the same thing.
IG: No matter what you do or the executive committee ultimately decides, there are people who are going to go after the high school league and you specifically, for making the wrong decision or not making the right decision or not making the decision fast enough or not communicating it well enough. Have you ever had so many voices coming at you from so many directions?
JS: Definitely not. The one thing that I can promise, regardless of what anyone else says we need to do, we are the only group — this office, my staff, myself — are the only ones thinking about it all day, every day. We have no other obligations. Our coaches, they’ve got to prepare for classes, practices. Our athletics directors, they have to prepare for uniforms, travel. Ours — all day, every day — is about athletics. That’s what we do. When issues rise to the top, that’s where we put our focus on. This is a very emotional experience. People say things sometimes that when they go back and think about it, it truly didn’t make sense.