The individuals on the South Carolina High School League (SCHSL) staff know there are three things that take precedence over the job – your health, your family, which includes your spiritual life, and compensation for your efforts. Jerome Singleton has preached these three priorities to his staff since he became SCHSL commissioner in 2005.
“One thing Jerome always said, even when he hired me in 2007, was ‘family comes first,’” said Nessie Harris, retired associate director of the SCHSL said. “Your family and your health are always the priority.”
Singleton’s established priorities had a string attached.
“After that, the expectation is I’ve got all of you,” Singleton said. “It’s your health, family and God, and reasonable compensation. Beyond that, then I expect to have all of you, because I give you all of me.”
In March, after the last basketball champion was crowned and the annual SCHSL legislative conference concluded, Singleton had to take his own advice and press pause on giving his job and his staff his all and prioritize his health and his family.
A persistent cough kept nagging him in the days that followed. His staff and his wife, Jackie, grew ever more concerned as the cough lingered and information was being spread all over the news regarding the coronavirus and what would become a global pandemic.
“Because of my relationship with Jerome, a staff member asked me to find out if he actually had the virus or not because he was just so quiet about it,” Harris said. “I would call and call Jerome. There were no return phone calls and it would go right into voicemail. When I got in contact with Jackie, she wasn’t really sure if he had it or not, but he had the symptoms and she finally convinced him to go to the hospital.”
As the cough persisted and a fever presented itself, Singleton knew he had to see a doctor. His doctor advised him to go ahead and get tested for COVID-19.
“The first thing they told me was, ‘we think you’ve got pneumonia,’ Singleton said. “I had no idea I was going in there to stay.”
When the test came back positive, Singleton was focused on one thing – getting healthy. This started with disconnecting from the noise around him.
“I had to figure out how I was going to get healthy,” Singleton said. “Only one man was available to help me with that, so it didn’t make a difference if anybody else called, they need to talk to Jackie, because if you wasn’t God, I wasn’t taking the call.”
Not only did Singleton block out the distraction of work, but he also blocked out any negative news regarding the pandemic and its impact on the world.
“I didn’t watch any news. I didn’t want to see anything about the virus,” Singleton said. “I didn’t need anything that was going to talk me into anything negative.”
“I made a commitment then. When I got out, I had to still be quarantined for 14 days at home. In those 14 days, I realized that there was no cure. My best opportunity with this was to get as healthy as I could. I went on a health kick. I drank nothing but water. I didn’t put any sweets inside me. I got to where I felt a little better and I started exercising every day. That’s the new me.”
Singleton’s new habits did not just address his health, but also how he socially interacted with his community. Once a self-proclaimed hugger, Singleton now had to adjust to the new social norms that accompanied the spread of COVID-19.
“When I meet you for the first time, we probably shake hands, but the second time we meet we probably hug each other,” Singleton said. “That is my nature and how we operate in South Carolina. Now, with the social distancing and everything else that needs to take place and realizing how this thing spreads, I’m looking at things totally differently. I mean it’s hard for me to remember to do it, but it doesn’t take long for me to remember to do it. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I got to stand back. That’s the big adjustment for me.”
While Singleton was prioritizing his health and fighting the virus, the virus was battling back – this time against his family. His nephew contracted the virus while serving in the military, followed by his sister. All these experiences – from Singleton’s personal battle to the impact the virus had on his family – have understandably influenced the way he has approached the return of athletics and activities in South Carolina.
“Once I got to where I was better, then I recognized that my nephew had the virus, and he’s in the military – I mean he’s strong as an ox – and he had to be on a ventilator and then, of course, he survived it,” Singleton said. “Then to find out that my sister got it and she didn’t survive it on the ventilator. All of those things, as I was looking at it from my point of view, from my experience I knew whatever we did, we were going to have to be very careful in how we allow this thing to spread.”
Controlling the spread of the virus has been a challenge for the entire world. The problem for Singleton is that schools and the SCHSL only have limited control over the behaviors of students throughout any given day.
“The majority of hours we have no control,” Singleton said. “We had to start having the conversation about how we are going to tie up their time that we don’t have them. We can make them practice the things that we know that are best for them while we’ve got them. So, we had to start the campaign of convincing them of why this makes sense and why you need to do these things.”
Singleton is acutely aware that not everyone is going to agree with the decisions he makes as commissioner. That is not new to him.
“We have to do what’s right even when it’s not popular,” Singleton said. “Our decisions cannot be based on anything other than health and safety. And that’s what it’s going to be even if that makes some people upset.”
According to Harris, Singleton has always been a thoughtful, deliberate decision-maker.
“Jerome is the type of person who thinks through everything before he makes a decision,” Harris said. “Jerome is one of those that would think backwards. He didn’t look at things from where it was. He would look at it from where it should be and that’s how he operated. He always looked at the end to see what would happen at the end. He always looks farther down the line.”
While the number of positive cases continued to grow throughout the summer, the clock was ticking on decisions regarding the SCHSL fall seasons. Singleton utilized his experiences and the available facts to lead his staff down paths they had never traveled before.
“Our thoughts were all about how we get a championship together,” Singleton said. “We’ve moved totally over to how do we get a season. How do we get the largest number of kids an opportunity to play the most contests? That’s where we are. It’s all about giving them that opportunity to get in front of their coaches or their coaches to get in front of them, so that they can learn these lessons that come through athletics.”
For Singleton, providing that educational opportunity to as many students as possible is the ultimate goal. It is the message he continues to give the coaches throughout South Carolina.
“Being a former coach, I’m a very competitive person. I want to play to win, but we even had to address the mindset of coaches and say, ‘listen, this time it’s not about wins and losses. At this time, it’s about getting them mentally prepared. At this time, it’s about the emotions of the kids. At this time, it’s about trying to get them to be healthy. X’s and O’s don’t play any role here. This time, the kid that sits at the end of the bench will get as much attention as the kid that steps up first, because it’s not about X’s and O’s.’”
Singleton believes that athletics play a critical role in the overall development of young people, and that is why he is fighting every day to get healthier and make thoughtful, fact-based decisions focusing on the health and safety of the student-athletes of South Carolina. He also knows all too well the physical, mental and emotional damage that this virus can and is causing.
“It’s a moment in time. If I force you to miss a season while trying to maintain your health and safety, I’ll take that. If we look back and say, ‘man, we could have played,’ I’ll take that over, ‘we should have never played.’ That’s the one I couldn’t live with.”
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.