Fate of fall sports remains uncertain in haze of COVID-19 pandemic

Spring sports in the fall? Athletic directors at area high schools say they have considered many options in the uncertainty introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. If Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle’s comment that “sports are like the reward of a functioning society,” is on the mark, deeming playing fields safe for athletes to occupy this fall should be a hopeful sign for all. (Matt Benoit photo © 2020)

By Matt Benoit

Updated July 24, 2020: After a spring of no sports for students across the region, summer is giving school districts a chance to plan for what may happen come fall. 

The trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, remains anyone’s guess. Even if classroom learning resumes, what will be the fate of extracurricular activities such as sports? If they happen at all, what will they look like?

While local coaches and players lament possible restrictions to practices and fan attendance, administrators wrestle with budgetary concerns and the health of athletic participants. None of it is easy, and so far, uncertainty is the only certainty. 

On June 22, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA), the state’s governing body for high school and middle school athletics, released specific guidelines for the resumption of athletic activity. Made in conjunction with advice from the National Federation of State High School Associations and the Sports Medicine Advisory Committees, these guidelines address which activities can proceed — and which shouldn’t — during each phase of the Safe Start Washington plan. 

On July 7, the WIAA’s executive board announced the start date of fall sports will be pushed back, commencing fall football practices on Sep. 5. All other fall sports practices may begin on Sep. 7, with regular season contests allowed to start Sep. 18 or later.

July 24 update:

On July 21, the WIAA announced modifications to the 2020-21 sports calendar, shifting football, girl soccer and volleyball from fall to early spring. The move effectively creates four sports seasons instead of the traditional three. Condensed schedules will likely be held for all sports as a result. 

• In the fall, cross-county, slow-pitch softball and girls swim and dive are scheduled, with an option for golf and tennis to also play.
• Winter sports (January to March) will consist of basketball, boys swim and dive, gymnastics, cheerleading and wrestling.
• Spring would have an early schedule (March to May) of football and the other aforementioned fall sports, and 1B/2B boys soccer.
• Traditional spring sports such as tennis, fast-pitch softball, baseball, track and field, 1A to 4A boys soccer, golf and dance would close out the school year (May-June).

The WIAA Executive Board will establish health-related benchmarks for holding fall sports by July 28. If fall sports cannot be offered, the remaining scheduled sports will also be shifted to early spring.

 ‘Cautiously optimistic’

Bryan Michaelson, athletic director for the Meridian School District, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that fall athletics will take place, but how that will look remains up in the air.  

“There are a lot of unknowns,” he said. “It all depends on how quickly we move into phases, and how safe it is for people, and the level of comfort of each district in what their risk management pool says.”

The WIAA’s position, Michaelson said, is that seasons and championship events should be played if it’s safe to do so, even if that means not all schools in a given conference can participate. Given the disparity in county re-openings across the state thus far, it seems likely that some schools may not be eligible or may lose eligibility mid-season. 

The WIAA guide covers detailed protocols for various sports, and also addresses testing regimens and plans for outbreaks during the season. These include the possibility of teams having to quarantine for several weeks in-season, or the total cancellation of a school or district’s athletic contests if an outbreak forces a closing. 

In addition to guidelines on hygiene (minimizing sweat on equipment, no shared hydration stations, frequent disinfecting of equipment), the document also suggests changes to sportsmanship: no pre- or post-game handshakes, high-fives or fist bumps. 

The guide also rates each sport at low, medium or high risk of transmitting coronavirus between participants, and provides three tiers of who should attend games. And of most immediate concern, health recommendations between Phases 2 and 4 are given for practices, presenting students and coaches with unique challenges in preparing for an upcoming season. 

‘Definitely different’

Like the athletes themselves, tackling dummies will have new
assignments for practice sessions under COVID-19 regulations.
Currently, regulations specify that dummies cannot be
shared among players. (Matt Benoit photo © 2020)

In a normal year, Jamie Plenkovich’s varsity football team would be in the midst of summer conditioning, working out at Ferndale High School’s weight room and other on-site facilities. 

Instead, the weight room is closed, and students are doing their weight training at Ferndale’s Locker Room gym, which has reopened with limited capacity. The students are being helped by the gym’s trainers, one of whom is also an assistant coach to the team. Students who are working out together are doing so in groups — or “pods” — of five or fewer people, and with only those same people each day. 

Other than a couple of team meetings conducted via Zoom, Plenkovich said he’s had little contact with most of his players. 

“It is definitely different,” he said. “I usually get a lot of energy around the kids; it’s very positive vibes from being around them and their attitudes. I definitely miss that.”

Prior to the Phase 2 re-opening of Washington gyms, Plenkovich said coaches were sending players individual body weight workouts they could do at home, in lieu of spring football camp. The team’s season was supposed to start Aug. 19 with two-a-day practice sessions, but it’s now Sept. 5. And if Whatcom County does not advance to Phase 3 of re-opening by then, the two-a-days may not happen at all. Even in Phase 3, there will be limitations to what players can do. 

“I think it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to practice if we’re not in Phase 4,” Plenkovich said. “In Phase 3, you’re really limited with blocking and tackling and the size of the group you’re working with. That’s going to be very challenging, and it’s going to take some pretty strategic planning to get things done that you need to get done.”  

Under Phase 2 recommendations now in place, no gathering of more than six total people (five players and one coach) is allowed, and those people must be properly distanced. For Phase 2 football, specifically, players aren’t supposed to throw or hand off a ball to one another, and tackling dummies can’t be shared. In Phase 3, workout pods max out at 10 students, still short of the 11 needed on the gridiron. 

Students in lesser contact sports, meanwhile, are managing more easily with training during the pandemic.

Liam Romanyshyn, 17, is an incoming senior at Sehome High School. A member of both the varsity soccer (spring sport) and tennis (fall sport) teams, he’s been able to play tennis with friends given its built-in distancing. Soccer has been harder to play, but he’s still managed some practice with fewer than five players. 

Although Romanyshyn’s college hopes aren’t primarily riding on athletic talent, he said the pandemic may also alter how seniors are scouted for college-level play. 

“It definitely has made the recruiting process more difficult,” he said. “For soccer, you need to have lots of game footage to show coaches, and you just can’t get that if you’re training by yourself.”

Missing fanfare  — and fans

If fall sports aren’t cancelled, who will be there to watch them?

WIAA guidelines deem spectators and vendors as nonessential, leaving players, coaches, officials, medical staff, and other event workers as essential; media members are considered “preferred” attendees. Until bans on mass gatherings are lifted, it’s recommended that nonessential folks stay home.  

While fan-less football games would dampen the varsity experience and require mental adjustment, Plenkovich said junior varsity and C-team players commonly play with smaller audiences and might be less impacted.

Regardless, having games played vastly outweighs having anyone watch them, he said. 

Romanyshyn agrees. 

“It would definitely be a bummer,” he said, “but I’d still be glad just to get the opportunity to play one last time. I know a lot of my friends on the soccer team who were seniors had that taken away from them (this spring). No matter what it looks like, I’d be grateful to have a chance to play our season.”

Should fan-less games become the norm, one ripple effect may be on Associated Student Body (ASB) budgets. These budgets, which go towards sports, drama and music programs, and activities like school dances, are primarily funded by event ticket revenue and the sale of ASB cards, which students buy annually to gain automatic event admittance. Not all sports charge for attendance, but popular sports like football and basketball are typically the main sources of ticket revenue.

Mike McKee, the Lynden School District’s athletic director, also oversees their ASB budget as activities coordinator. Most schools, he said, have an ASB budget between $30,000 and $80,000. In athletics, those funds pay for things like officials’ fees, equipment, coaching stipends and more. If ticket sales aren’t allowed, budgets may come up short.

“It’s not sustainable for the long-term, but in the short-term, everybody could survive for a year,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a Rubik’s cube to how you balance it all.”

Colin Cushman, Bellingham School District athletic director, said funding from various district sources already supplements their ASB budget, and he hopes that will continue if shortfalls occur.

In Ferndale, Plenkovich said the athletic budget is partially supported by a school levy. Renewal of that levy, however, failed to pass in February. Put to voters again this November, the levy may prove additionally critical to ensure programs have what they need, should ticket sales disappear.

Into the unknown

The fact remains, of course, that nobody knows what virus numbers will look like in two weeks, much less two months. 

With constantly changing scenarios, McKee said planning too far ahead seems unwise. Add in the fact that so many organizations — from the WIAA to the governor’s office — have a hand in deciding a framework for moving forward, and it’s difficult to know what comes next. 

Several different scenarios are possible. One is holding low-risk sports like cross-country, while either cancelling or postponing high-risk sports like football to the spring. Another includes flipping spring and fall sports entirely, though McKee cautioned that if fall virus outbreaks cancel athletic activity, it would mean consecutive academic years of no spring sports. Schedules could also be shortened in some manner. 

“We’ve thought through things, but right now, nobody knows if we’re going to have sports in the fall,” McKee said. “We’re just trying to do the best we can to make sure we’re following the rules.”

For most school districts across Whatcom County, that currently means no practices or use of school weight room facilities. Still, McKee said each school district may proceed slightly differently with future activity levels, especially to remain compliant with their individual insurance pool. 

The Bellingham School District’s “Return to Play” Committee met June 24 to discuss their next steps, and are currently not considering scheduled practices until Whatcom County enters Phase 3, Cushman said. 

“Our goal is to ensure we’re able to compete in the fall,” he said. “We don’t want to do anything to mess that up.”

Regardless of what scenario takes place this fall, all parties seem to agree that athletic decisions need to be thoughtful, carefully made, and focused on the safety and well-being of the students who’ll hopefully get to compete. 

“Athletics is a great educational tool,” said Plenkovich. “The things you cannot learn in the classroom, you learn on the field and in being part of a team. Missing out on a year of that has a lot of effect on kids.”

Matt Benoit is Bellingham-born and raised. He’s written for the Bellingham HeraldTri-City HeraldPacific Northwest InlanderDiscover Magazine.com, and WhatcomTalk.com, among others. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media production from Washington State University.