For the kids? Nation’s largest youth volleyball event to proceed in June despite concerns

The Amateur Athletic Union has long touted its junior volleyball championships as the "largest volleyball event in the world" — an annual tournament that featured 2,800 teams last summer and drew roughly 110,000 visitors to Orlando, Florida over parts of 12 days.

It's the type of gargantuan sporting event that seems almost impossible to safely stage this year in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

But the AAU — amid questions from experts, coaches and parents — is going ahead.

Late last month, the organization announced that it will still hold its volleyball nationals at the Orange County Convention Center beginning on June 16, while outlining the safeguards it will implement in an effort to protect its members. 

The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando is scheduled to play host next month to a 12-day volleyball tournament that could include more than 21,000 people from 35 states. (Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack, AP)

There will be no international teams this year, for example, and temperature checks before competition. Volleyballs and courts will be sanitized regularly. Handshakes will be discouraged. Courts will be spaced farther apart. Each team will be limited to a party of 30 people, including 15 players, five coaches and 10 chaperones.

The AAU wrote in a news release that "the safety of the participants is our highest priority," and "we do not make this decision lightly." The statement also made clear there is a financial motivation at stake, noting the importance of the event to the local economy, which the AAU estimated at around $90 million to $100 million last year.

"This event brings significant economic impact to the Central Florida area," the organization wrote. "Hotels, restaurants, and other local area businesses — all benefit from this event as it has become a staple of the local community each year."

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The AAU's decision to move forward with its marquee event has sent volleyball clubs around the country scrambling, forcing club directors to weigh the risks of competing with pressure from parents and their kids, many of whom want to get back onto the court. Entry fees for the event are $895 or $995 per team, and clubs have until Thursday night to pull out of the tournament and receive a full refund.

While more than half of registered teams have withdrawn in recent weeks, the event still had 714 registered teams as of Tuesday — which would result in as many as 21,000 athletes, coaches and chaperones from 35 states converging at a convention center, albeit in waves of matches over a span of 12 days.

The plan to hold the tournament in mid-June has raised eyebrows among public health and infectious disease experts, who warn that holding a sporting event of this scale, given what we know and don't know about the spread of COVID-19, is too much, too soon. 

"It certainly portends bad outcomes," said Ryan Demmer, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. "I think we can say it’s a pretty risky idea."

The AAU declined to make its president and CEO, Roger Goudy, available for an interview with USA TODAY Sports and agreed only to answer questions via email.

In written responses provided by spokesperson Rachel D'Orazio, the organization did not specify whether COVID-19 tests will be made available on site during the tournament nor what will happen if someone at the event tests positive, indicating only that it will follow local, state and CDC guidelines.

The organization was also asked if anything short of a government recommendation will stop the junior volleyball championships from taking place next month.

"There are many reasons an event can be cancelled or postponed," D'Orazio replied. "At this time we are looking forward to hosting participating teams in Orlando this June."

'What do you do?'

Adam Beamer said he was a bit surprised when he learned that the AAU junior nationals were still going to take place in June.

He was equally surprised when his Minnesota-based volleyball club, Northern Lights, began surveying parents about whether they wanted their children to compete.

Beamer, the club's co-director, thought most parents would balk at the idea of flying their children to Florida amid a pandemic. He didn't expect the club would have enough players to field the 22 teams it had initially entered.

Instead, Beamer said, enough parents signed off to enable the club to field 10 teams. So, as of Tuesday, those teams were still slated to compete.

"Your customers want to go, but as a club, logistically, it becomes really tough," Beamer said. "And then you want what’s best for everyone, health-wise, as well."

Beamer said the club informed parents up front that attending the tournament would involve normal travel arrangements, which would include sharing a flight, minivan and Airbnb with teammates. So even though the AAU has outlined social-distancing measures during matches, he said, "it’s not like they’re going to be social distancing in a minivan."

"There’s a lot of risk involved — health wise, financial wise," Beamer continued. "What do you do if you send a team down there and somebody has a fever and tests positive? Does the whole team quarantine? Are they stuck in Florida for two weeks? What happens? We don’t know those answers."

Some clubs appear willing to shoulder those risks in part because AAU junior nationals is such a significant event in the volleyball world, particularly when it comes to college recruiting.

An estimated 700 college coaches were slated to attend last year's event, according to the AAU. Brian McCann, the executive director of Pennsylvania-based East Coast Power Volleyball, said AAU officials had indicated that "a good number" of college coaches are planning to be on hand this year, too, despite the circumstances.

However, the NCAA has suspended all in-person recruiting for Division I and Division II sports through May 31 due to COVID-19, and indicated that it could extend that suspension.

"It's such a huge event. And it draws all the best talent from around the country," McCann explained. "We have over 100 teams and a lot of strong kids in our program. They want to get recruited, they want to get in front of college coaches."

Two other major national tournaments, run by USA Volleyball, also provide substantial visibility for recruits. Though those events are still scheduled to begin June 23 in Reno, Nevada and June 25 in Dallas, USA Volleyball has taken more of a wait-and-see approach, eliminating all sanctioned activities through May 22 and outlining guidelines only for virtual training sessions. A series of qualifying events that had been rescheduled to June were canceled this week.

The uncertainty around USAV qualifiers prompted East Coast Power to instead go all-in on AAU nationals, holding out hope that it would be able to attend. But he indicated Tuesday that it planned to withdraw its remaining 20 teams this week due to safety concerns — not related to COVID-19, but as a result of insufficient practice opportunities related to local stay-at-home orders.

Because of local government mandates, McCann said the club's athletes wouldn't be able to have two weeks of practice before the event, which could result in injuries.

"If they (said) it’s safe for us to train and get back in the gym, yeah we were ready to go," McCann said.

'Probably not a good idea'

More than half of the roughly 1,800 teams that had registered to attend AAU junior nationals have withdrawn in recent weeks, leaving some age groups and competition levels — including the most competitive division for 18-year-olds — with fewer than five teams.

However, even at a fraction of its usual size, the event has the potential to draw thousands of athletes, coaches and chaperones to the Orange County Convention Center, which has more than 2 million square feet of exhibition space.

This fact alone is enough to worry public health experts, who have generally recommended bringing youth sports back carefully, locally and in phases.

The safest route, they contend, would be to bring back a sport like volleyball with individual workouts, then group workouts, then games with modified rules and eventually small, confined local tournaments — all while carefully monitoring community transmission of COVID-19 within that area.

The idea of hosting a national volleyball tournament with hundreds of teams, roughly one month from now, flies in the face of that general philosophy.

"I’m just not convinced that by June, we’re going to be enough out of the high-risk zone that it’s safe to have large public gatherings like this — even with all these measures put in place to mitigate risk," said Davidson Hamer, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health and School of Medicine and a physician at Boston Medical Center.

Hamer said it appeared that the AAU was "trying hard to make it safe" by implementing safeguards such as distancing, sanitizing and checking temperatures, among other measures. But he also noted that temperature checks often do not identify asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, and there are still significant questions about how the disease affects children.

On the whole, experts said the AAU's safeguards could mitigate the risks associated with the event, but certainly not eliminate them.

"In between (matches), the volleyball gets sanitized. But how many times is the ball touching how many different players’ hands before that sanitizing event?" said Demmer, whose 13-year-old daughter plays volleyball.

"You’ve got people in the front row who are inevitably going to be going to the net for spikes, blocks, whatever. Sometimes there are collisions. Those exchanges create opportunities for transmission. Just the front row personnel (alone) … they’re all going to get into, essentially, the same respiratory space of the other players."

When asked if it had consulted with local health officials, infectious disease experts or other medical professionals before deciding to move forward with the tournament, the AAU said it discussed mitigation measures with Orlando Health, a network of hospitals in the area.

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Orange County did not immediately provide comment Wednesday on whether it had endorsed the staging of the event, or offered any guidance to organizers.

For Beamer, the co-director of Northern Lights, there is a fear not only that a member of his club could be infected, should they ultimately end up participating, but also that attending could in and of itself contribute to something worse.

"We certainly don’t want to be part of running something here and then finding out (later) it became a hot spot and everyone got sick," Beamer said. "We’re just trying to do what people told us they want to do."

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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