SEATTLE – Few people can relate to the emotional trauma of shutdown high school sports more keenly than Tami Reese.
The longtime girls volleyball coach – 21 years at Ballard High School, the past two at Issaquah High School – watched her son, Tyler, lose his senior high school baseball season at Issaquah last spring when spring sports were canceled in April. And she simultaneously watched her husband, Issaquah baseball coach Rob Reese, miss out on a legitimate run at a fourth state title.
And now Tami Reese is looking at an empty fall schedule for her promising Eagles volleyball team. The state’s high school schedule has been erased until at least late December because of COVID-19 concerns. As it stands, the abbreviated volleyball season (with the football season) will be March 1 to May 2, but that has its own set of complications. And like everything in the volatile, unpredictable COVID-19 era, it is written in pencil, not ink.
“My heart was broken this spring as a mom and a wife, and now my heart is being broken as a coach,” Reese said.
It’s a scenario playing out in various poignant forms in households throughout the state. And now high school athletes are trying to be proactive in making their case that Washington should join other states around the country – 34 of them, including Idaho – which are forging ahead with a fall football season, and that the other boys and girls fall sports should, too.
Organized as Student-Athletes of Washington (SAW), supported by an online petition signed by more than 28,000, they rallied Thursday at the Capitol in Olympia to present their case in front of the house where Gov. Jay Inslee works.
It’s a noble cause. No one with any semblance of a heart would dismiss these pleas as anything but genuine, sincere and completely understandable. Those of us with children – three, in my case – who played high school sports know firsthand the joy and benefits it elicits. If this were happening in one of their seasons, I would be just as anguished. The points the students make about the value of high school sports are unassailable.
Mick Hoffman, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), which oversees high school sports in the state, gets it, too. He said he was in tears this week watching his grandson attend his first day of kindergarten online, knowing the vital interactions he was missing. He realizes these high school athletes are losing similar bonding opportunities.
“We get it from a very humanistic point of view,” Hoffman said. “Heck, it’s driving me crazy sitting in my living room. We understand that. As a parent, my kids were very active in athletics. It would kill me. ”
In a Zoom call Thursday with a small group of reporters, Hoffman applauded the SAW group for its activism.
“As a former social studies teacher, I think it’s awesome the kids are stepping up and seeking answers and getting involved in the process, and not just feeling like victims,” he said. “It’s great. We should be able to answer questions.”
But this is where reality intersects with compassion, medical facts with empathy. This is where Hoffman says, ruefully, “We have to give answers people don’t want to hear.”
This is where I’ll interject my conversation Thursday with Dr. Stephen Mooney, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, and associate director of the Research Core, Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center.
Mooney gently but emphatically supported the decision to table high school sports in the fall.
“I’m totally sympathetic to people who would like to be able to play,” he said. “I completely get it. … The absolute number of cases in our region is higher than zero, but not so many that most people know someone who’s gotten really sick. It’s very easy under those conditions to feel the risk of doing the thing you love would be low. “Psychologically, it’s extremely hard to sacrifice a lot to avoid something that feels like it’s low risk.
“But the public-health response here would be to say, A, it’s potentially catastrophic to some of the people involved if there is some form of outbreak; and B, it’s potentially catastrophic to people who are not directly involved, and there’s a responsibility not just to the athletes themselves, but the broader community.
“And that’s really hard. I think we can’t get anywhere without acknowledging it’s really hard. But the way I would frame it for athletes who are used to needing to be part of a team, that this is a scenario where the community is the team. … I hope they’d be able to see there could be risks in breathing hard right next to someone else’s face. Until we have some way of making that safe, this doesn’t feel like a safe thing to do. And the consequences don’t necessarily fall on them. It could fall on someone’s grandmother that you don’t know. That’s pretty terrible, too.”
When I asked Hoffman what it would take for the SAW kids to get their wish, it didn’t sound promising in the short term, though he emphasized that the state has promised to review their recommendations later this fall.
He spoke of how the decisions on high school sports have been a collaborative matter involving the governor’s office, the department of health and the WIAA, within the framework of Inslee’s directives on COVID-19.
“Our board made the decision, based on the guidelines we were asked to operate under, to adjust the seasons as they are now,” Hoffman said.
One complicating factor emerged when Inslee last month issued his recommendation for online learning with no extracurricular activities in the fall.
“Risk-management groups came out and informed our schools if they did not follow recommendations by the department of health and the governor’s office, there could be insurance concerns,” Hoffman said.
“That in turn prevented schools from really being able to offer anything, even those schools that wanted to do it. That in turn shifted what we were able to provide or offer directly to the membership.”
Even the so-called low-risk sports of slowpitch softball and cross country, which technically are allowed to compete this fall as part of Season 1, are shut down across the state, Hoffman said. Fearing insurance concerns, schools have chosen the option of holding them in Season 3 beginning in March.
Even schools that wanted to “go rogue” and compete without the auspices of the WIAA must weigh the insurance implications.
“Ultimately, they are local decisions,” Hoffman said. “But if the recommendation is no extracurricular activities, it’s going to be very difficult for a school board or superintendent to go against that recommendation understanding the potential insurance implications and other factors.
“I guess what we need to see is a continued decline in rates, and then the department of health and governor’s office continuing to do the work they’ve been doing on evaluating at what point is it safe.”
Even then, football (with the other highest-risk sports – wrestling, competitive cheer and dance) won’t be cleared until Phase “4-plus” is reached – and those metrics haven’t been delineated yet.
The heartfelt words of the teen athletes resonate, but for the gyms and ballfields to be opened any time soon it would be an upset along the lines of a Class B school defeating Eastside Catholic.
Until then, Tami Reese’s heart, and countless others, will continue to be broken.
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