All quiet on the summer front

Scott County High School’s turf field, track, football goalposts and soccer and lacrosse nets sit undisturbed on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The lack of activity is a mandated part of the KHSAA dead period. No organized sports activities of any kind are allowed between June 25 and July 9, giving athletes and their families a break before the start of fall practice each year.

Despite its foreboding name, perhaps one of the final traces from an era in which people spoke precisely and without fear of reprisal, KHSAA “dead period” is a breath of life for many of us.

High school athletes and their parents, heavily regulated by the calendars of their coach(es) in their favorite sport(s) for 11½ months of the year, get a chance to be kids and families for a while.

Wet a fishing line. Jump in the lake. Ride a roller coaster. Set off fireworks. Go to a concert or a professional sporting event for (gasp!) fun.

And if you think friendly, neighborhood sportswriters aren’t rejoicing at this newfound, fleeting freedom, well, y’all don’t know me as well as you thought you did. The number of steps on my fitness tracker, and the equal and probably related creakiness of my back and my golf swing, all are indicators that it’s nice not to have a game or an interview on the agenda every day.

Down time and stay-cations are good for the soul at any age and across all professions and lifestyles. Muscles and minds need rest. Human relationships require the food and water of quality time and unforced conversation.

Hang around Kentucky high school sports long enough and you’ll hear its sanctioning body criticized for every move and non-move you can imagine. Those of us blessed to play and cover the games don’t praise the KHSAA’s good works often as is deserved, and dead period is high on the list of sound human resource management.

From “12:00:01 a.m. on June 25 to 11:59:59 p.m. on July 9,” its by-laws explicitly state, all sports under the state’s jurisdiction come to a screeching halt.

It means the fields, uniforms, equipment, buses, vans and coaches at Scott County, Great Crossing and every other public and private high school in the state are out of bounds to next year’s athletes.

Schools aren’t allowed to spend a thin dime on sports during that 15-day window. Email, text messages, phone calls, homing pigeons and smoke signals between a coach and prospective players are strictly forbidden. He or she can’t legally enlist a voluntary third party to do the same.

“Open fields,” which are part of the sports vernacular for the month after school closes in the spring, must cease. The reason why is clear to anyone who didn’t just land here from outer space: In this day and age, an invitation to practice under a school’s banner constitutes heavily implied requirement.

Written in bold type, as if to anticipate the games of gotcha and loophole-finding we all live and love to play, is a cautionary catch-all: “If you ask, the answer is likely no.”

This rule is reasonable, in part, because youth sports in the commonwealth are otherwise given their rightful place of honor as a vital piece of the educational process.

I love that coaches here are allowed to roll out a rack of basketballs on the first day of school when it’s 93 degrees in the shade. It’s equally splendid that we have spring football practice, fall repetitions in the batting cage, and skills camps for every sport under the summer sun.

It’s a far cry from how other states overregulate their young people. I’ve been asked many times how Kentucky’s sports system compares to what I grew up and worked with 40-plus years in Maine, and my answer, with a smile and a sigh of relief, is that it’s incredibly permissive.

In addition to their own two-week “hands off” period (maybe they’re squeamish about death?) at the end of summer vacation, high school coaches in the Pine Tree State are banned from working directly with their athletes from the moment they’re eliminated from the playoffs until school’s out for summer.

Under that arrangement, essentially your sport is limited to a three-month regular season, one week in June, and all of July. It’s a far cry from 50 weeks.

Certainly a case can be made that New England’s model does a better job encouraging multi-sport athletes, in part because that’s necessary for participation numbers in a corner of the country with static or dwindling population and fickle weather.

But it’s also easy to see why athletes playing beyond high school or a Division III college program up there are few and far between. AAU is your only option to play basketball in May or baseball in September, and that is cost and travel-prohibitive for most families.

So we have it pretty good in these parts. And while that laissez-faire approach puts substantial authority in the hands of every coach, Kentucky is blessed mostly with men and women who wield it with common sense instead of strict    foolishness.

Scott County football coach Jim McKee, as a prime example, takes only a small portion of the time he’s given each year for spring practice. For all McKee’s admitted old-school trappings, I’ve lost track of how many times he’s told me he wants his players to cross-train and have the option to play baseball or run, jump and throw at the track.

And once that week of workouts is over, McKee is adamant that he doesn’t want to see his troops again until July 15. Even then, he spends two to three weeks building up to full-team workouts with a conditioning program known as Tennessee Tracks.

Championships, he has told me, are won against real opponents in November and December, not while fighting the heat index in June and July, and McKee has won enough of them that I believe him.

The approach in basketball has been remarkably similar. Billy Hicks and Steve Helton, both savvy veterans of their craft, have regularly conveyed that they want players refreshed and ready in October, not already on the verge of burnout.

Hoops’ 30-game winter season, plus playoffs, is a grind all its own. Our schools consistently apply that reality with wisdom. Everything I’ve observed from Tim Glenn, Steve Page and Glenn Wilson tells me they’ll handle their athletes with the same sensibility.

There are some in the crowd who clamor for a deader period. How about the entire month of July? Why not all summer?

Those strike me as bubble-wrap alternatives of our time that sound preventative on the surface but don’t realistically improve the lot for most kids.

Sports are invaluable in providing structure, responsibility and motivation for young people. These busy schedules keep them fit, teach them commitment and underscore the importance of the team concept.

Yes, it keeps us all running, but having a meaningful carrot to chase beats so many of the alternatives in 2019 life. To those who would wring their hands and say “let the kids be kids,” I would argue that sports are part and parcel of what it means to be a kid, and still fun and exciting for the vast majority of them.

Two weeks and a day to recharge the batteries before getting back into the swing of things sound dead, solid perfect to me.

Kal Oakes can be reached via email at sports@news-graphic.com.

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