(Today’s commentary is by Joe Brocato, Metronews Sports)
No one will dispute the fact that the top priorities of state officials at this time should be protecting vulnerable populations from COVID, distributing vaccines in the most efficient ways possible and creating safe environments for students to return to classrooms for in-person instruction. High school sports should not be the top priority on any list but that doesn’t mean extracurricular activities should be totally discarded until every willing West Virginian receives the COVID vaccine.
The benefits of high school sports are many, not the least of which include the opportunity to play at the college level and receive full or partial athletic scholarships. For those in disadvantaged backgrounds, sports can be their ticket to higher education. But the first step is exposure. And with all five surrounding states underway with their winter sports seasons or set to launch within the next week, college coaches, even from West Virginia schools, may have to look elsewhere to fill their respective rosters.
Morgantown High School boys basketball coach Dave Tallman said two of his players competed in an AAU tournament in Myrtle Beach this past weekend. That’s the very same place Governor Jim Justice warned people against visiting during the summer due to an outbreak of COVID cases. Without a high school season, those seeking a college home may have to travel far and wide while gyms in West Virginia sit empty.
It is difficult to argue that sports should be played if schools in a particular county are closed to in-person instruction. So it is clear that any path to returning to the gyms and fields starts with getting kids back in the classroom. Improving health conditions and a downward trend in case numbers is the first step. Governor Justice has promised that the state COVID map will no longer prevent elementary or middle school students from attending school. He also indicated the map may be once again ‘tweaked’ for high school attendance.
Legendary football coach Bill Parcells once said, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” So here is what should be on the grocery list for the WVSSAC.
First, many voices, not one, must be involved in the process. Coaches statewide have voiced frustration that they have not been asked by the Governor to share their opinions on the best ways to return to play. A common perception amongst coaches is that Governor Justice is the lone voice making decisions to put up the stop signs on when and how to play. In July, the Governor announced a plan to delay but eventually proceed with the fall sports season. WVSSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan was in the Capitol building for the announcement. However, in two subsequent delay announcements in November and December, the WVSSAC was not consulted in advance.
The WVSSAC must restructure the entire calendar for winter and spring sports for a second time. Even if competitions can start on March 1, an issue still in dispute because the Governor has not yet formally decided, basketball season will spill well into April, when spring sports are usually well underway. As unfortunate as the cancellations of the state basketball tournaments were last winter, keep in mind that entire spring seasons for baseball, softball, tennis and track were canceled. Under the most optimistic timelines, spring sports seasons will be significantly shortened. The WVSSAC will likely have to get creative with compressing postseason schedules, allowing for as long of a regular season as possible.
Next, as a popular Twitter hashtag said, it is time to scrap the map, at least in how it pertains to athletics. Under the current map, 54 of 55 counties would be sidelined. The map wrecked fall sports postseasons, particularly in volleyball and football. A quarter of the volleyball teams that qualified for the state tournament could not compete because their COVID stats for tournament week turned against them, some by fractions of percentage points. In football, 22 of 48 teams were eliminated from the playoffs not by an opponent on the field, but by the map.
In a new format to the state basketball tournaments, 64 teams will qualify this year instead of the original 48. Even with improving COVID conditions, it is impossible to believe that all teams that earn a spot will ultimately be cleared to compete. The map has its purpose, but cannot be used to determine which teams can continue their seasons once postseasons begin. The map measures conditions within a community, not necessarily on a particular team. If teams are from a ‘higher-risk’ counties, an option to ‘test-and-play’ must be afforded, as it was to the Doddridge County cross country teams in the fall.
The Governor and the WVSSAC must include scheduling flexibility for all state tournament competitions to allow greater windows of time to play should COVID numbers increase at times during the spring.
If West Virginia’s vaccine rollout program continues at their great pace, returning to play will be a welcome bonus created by the fine work of health care professionals and all those involved in vaccine distribution efforts. A return to high school sports will provide a much different kind of shot in the arm for communities around the state, but still a very important one.