SVSJ commentary: The state of youth sports in Washington during COVID-19 is not good now, and parents and athletes are nervous and scared because of it. So can it be fixed? Should it?

On this Sunday morning, we here in Washington state are coming to terms with a youth sports scene that is very barren, very uncertain right now in the wake of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s decision this past week to shift some fall high school sports, including football, volleyball and girls’ soccer, to the spring of 2021 as the state continues its fight against COVID-19, the awful virus which has been in our midst now for many months and has no end, sadly, in sight, as it continues to wreak awful consequences on families and communities all over our state and country.

To review, the decision came after the association, our state’s high school sports governing body, had voted earlier this month to delay things at least two weeks, and also came after a similar decision by California’s high school sports officials to push things back, and several college conferences following suit. Reaction was mixed, with people happy there was something to look forward to, but at the same time disappointed in the loss of the fall season. That sentiment was very much evident in comments made by Seattle media personality Brock Huard on Twitter. He wrote on Tuesday night following the announcement, “Tonight is not the night for me to react to the decisions being forced on our young people as emotional as I am. At some point, the time will be right.” And it was right on Wednesday, as he discussed the decision on the Seattle-based Dori Monson radio talk show. Listen here (start at around the 22:00 mark). In the interview, he praised the WIAA then criticized the state’s pandemic response with respect to its impact on kids, both athletes and non-athletes.

Huard got some critical response for the tweet, but those responding that way do not understand that the former college and NFL quarterback, a father to two outstanding high school girls’ basketball players, was speaking for the thousands of athletes and their parents all over this state who on this Sunday morning are scared and desperate. Scared and desperate to get back out on the field. Scared and desperate to begin chasing their dreams again. So why are athletes and parents so scared, so desperate you ask? We discussed this at length last Saturday in a Twitter thread on our Twitter feed @snovalleysports.

The thread was ignited by a very fair comment from Mount Si High football alum Nick Mitchell, a former college quarterback who has moved on now into videography and is working in that capacity for the University of California’s football program. He wrote on Twitter, “Really tough seeing all of these showcases/camps going on in the middle of a pandemic. Hundreds of kids in attendance without masks and no social distancing. We keep saying we want sports back but this can’t be the way… just my two cents,” in response to a well-attended college football scouting event which took place down in Oregon last weekend and which several current MSHS players were in attendance at, along with their parents.

So why is this such an issue right now? There’s a lot of inconsistency between states with respect to reopening of youth athletics. While Washington, thanks to the current gathering restrictions imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee which limit outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 in phase three counties under the state’s COVID-19 restart plan and five elsewhere, teams can’t play games or practice for that matter, but in states such as Idaho, Utah, Nebraska, Iowa and Georgia, things are pretty well open. This means our teams, if they do decide to play, are having to go elsewhere to do it, putting themselves at risk of getting sick then bringing it back here – so called “importation spread” or them actually doing it back there in the other state. This inconsistency also has caused additional fear for high school athletes and their families in that they worry about being left out in college recruiting as players from open states compete and are being seen, albeit remotely, at tournaments by college coaches.

With Washington and other closed states’ teams and athletes flocking to these open states for chances to play, this has created sort of a “Wild West” style market in which promoters and others are taking advantage. A couple of cases in point – the USA Preps softball organization, which held a nearly 150-team tournament last weekend in southern Utah which attracted upwards we suspect of 3-4,000 athletes and families, many from so-called “closed” states like Washington – including three from our Valley community – and California despite the organizers telling parents to stay home even though no coaches were in attendance from high-profile colleges with the current NCAA recruiting shutdown, or the Florida High School Association and their handling of the season start for football this week.

For USA Preps, they took as many precautions as they could possibly take to help prevent the spread of the virus, but come on. That many people, most of them from out of state, coming into Utah like that, that was probably asking for some trouble. We haven’t yet heard news of any sort of an outbreak tied to the event, but it wouldn’t surprise us if we found out news like that in the coming days and weeks. Then how about Florida high school officials? They voted last Monday after a protracted meeting to keep their football season start as is, which would have been tomorrow, only to have to come back last Thursday and vote in a 30-day delay to the start of the season after counties on their own, in response to the initial decision, decided to delay their schools’ starts.

We suspect a big reason why the high school officials voted initially the way they did was the state is likely to be a destination for players and families from states who either delay their football to the spring, like Washington did, or cancel it entirely. That has not happened yet, but it is possible in some states where there’s still big problems, like New York and Pennsylvania. You want to keep an “We’re Open For Business” sign in neon lights on your front door for those potential transfers, many of whom are likely to be high-profile college prospects. But do that at the expense of your home-grown student-athletes, their families and communities? Really?

This is a pandemic not to be taken lightly, and youth sports needs to do a better job of being a good partner in this fight. Instead, you have tournament promoters, state associations, individual high school and club teams deciding that they can use this inconsistency and the fear and desperation that athletes and families have in closed states to their advantage, and perhaps make a few bucks on the side. In a normal environment, we would find that to be despicable, but even more so now, it’s sickening. It’s not good for anyone, lest our athletes and their families, many of whom now are thinking about possibly leaving our state, perhaps for good, in order to chase those dreams elsewhere. It’s happened four times already, all with high school hoopsters – including Huard’s two daughters – and it is likely to happen with football players this fall as well.

It’s frustrating for sure, and we know a lot of you are nervous, a lot of you are scared about the future. And yes, some of you are going out of state to chase those dreams, because those opportunities are not available here. Opportunities such as seeing cancer survivor Ryan Gerlitz, from Mount Si High School, hit a home run for his select baseball team yesterday down in Oregon. Opportunities such as seeing Wildcat volleyball coach Bonnie Foote’s daugher Isabelle and her club softball team finally get to play yesterday after bouncing from state to state for the past few weeks trying to find an opportunity only to see those taken away thanks to restrictions or other things. Huard in the interview talked about what he called an approach of isolation and social re-engineering of people to support what we believe is strict physical distancing. And that approach we think is pretty evident with the restrictions announced this past Thursday. This state has made it clear it believes that strict physical distancing is the only way they think they’ll beat this thing, even if it’s a virus that frankly isn’t even beatable at this point without a vaccine. And that’s fine and dandy, except that approach has created a lot of negative impacts for kids, and now with many school districts around the region set to start the school year with all-remote learning (including Riverview, announced late this past Friday), those negative impacts are likely to continue. For every kid and their family.

So how do you fix this for youth sports? The easiest way to do this, and to do this now, would be for the governor and health leadership, that being state Secretary of Health John Wiesman and state chief medical officer Dr. Kathy Lofy, to do the following:

1. Exempt all youth athletic competitions and practices from the gathering size restrictions in phase three counties, provided there are no spectators in attendance and a means to enforce that regulation and all other state and local health regulations are followed

2. Create a modified phase two in the plan that would exempt only those competitions outdoors from the regulations. So sports such as softball, baseball and soccer would be covered, but sports such as basketball or volleyball or gymnastics would not

3. Absent those other two proposals, for the governor to issue an immediate executive order banning all Washington colleges and universities – public and private, two and four year – from recruiting out-of-state high school athletes for at least the next two school years (2020-21 and 2021-22). Why? To give state athletes a feeling of some security knowing they may have an opportunity at the next level close to home in the event they are not seen by colleges and universities elsewhere

Do we expect any of that to happen? No, not a chance. So, that leaves you, as parents and athletes, with a difficult situation at hand, one which doesn’t have a lot of other solutions. There’s perhaps voting in the primary for someone other than the governor in his re-election race, or perhaps moving out of state to one which is open, or just biding your time and finding other things to do. No easy solutions, no easy answers, that’s for sure, but it’s the way it is until there’s a vaccine or until there’s a bonafide treatment or cure.

We want to see you all out there. We really do. We strongly urge the governor and his health team to do what we just suggested. But, we’ve followed this all along and we know where this governor and his health leadership stand and that stance has not changed and likely will not. So we’re left to have to just deliver the nuts and bolts reality of the situation and it’s one we don’t like at all. Now and well into the future.

Rhett Workman

About Rhett Workman

Rhett Workman is the editor of the Snoqualmie Valley Sports Journal. Workman is a veteran sports journalist, having covered Snoqualmie Valley sports for nearly a decade with the Snoqualmie Valley Record newspaper before starting up the SVSJ. Workman's coverage has earned the support and respect of Valley coaches, players, parents and fans, and the SVSJ continues the standard of coverage that Workman brought to the Valley Record.
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