MONROE — The WIAA Board of Control held a three-hour special business virtual meeting July 23 that was shared through YouTube to discuss the upcoming fall sports season in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
After receiving feedback from coaches, players, parents, school administrators and that state’s athletic director’s association, the board voted 8-3 to move forward with a delayed start plan to the 2020 fall sports season. More than 3,700 viewers were tuned in for the announcement.
The board moved the seven fall sports into two categories: High-risk and low-risk of COVID-19 exposure. The low-risk sports — girls golf, tennis, swimming and boys and girls cross country — will be eligible to begin practice the week of Aug. 17. Football, boys soccer and boys and girls volleyball are considered high-risk sports and practices will be delayed and will begin the week of Sept. 7 after Labor Day. The board passed the resolution, 8-3, with Black Hawk Superintendent Willy Chambers one of the three to vote against.
“If we start school and sports on the same day and there’s an issue, it’s really hard to figure out and identify where that came from,” Chambers said.
The current football season would have nonconference games eliminated, and the regular season chopped to just six contests. As it stands, there would be a three-week playoff schedule instead of the typical five-week set. Dave Anderson, the WIAA Executive Director, said that at this point, the focus should be on getting games in for athletes and not worrying about playoffs or state championships.
“That’s the trade-off,” Anderson said. “We can start it, but we don’t know when it will end. Is the primary purpose to get the kids to play, or that culminating event? That’s how the WIAA survives: Gate receipts. We need to get away from that mindset that we can’t have a season if we don’t have a champion.”
Todd Sobrilsky of the Wisconsin Athletic Directors Association echoed Anderson. “From WADA’s perspective, our membership would support 100% our athletes to compete for an extra couple of weeks than to just compete for a state championship. … If there is an option later for a tournament or even a one-off, then we’d be happy for that, too,” he said.
Jeff Newcomer, Monroe High School athletic director, said that he understands the pros and cons of not having a postseason or state championship.
“As long as kids get an opportunity to play, that’s what I’d like to see,” Newcomer said. “I’m sure there are some student-athletes that might feel differently, though.”
The next Board of Control meeting is set for Aug. 14.
The changing of the seasons
The change in plans stemmed from the abrupt rise in COVID-19 cases around the state since re-opening at the end of May. The state had just over 1,000 confirmed cases when it closed down the boys and girls basketball tournaments prematurely in mid-March, and as of July 22, there were more than 9,300 active cases in Wisconsin.
“We need to be thoughtful to back in March when we had the girl’s competition in Green Bay. They didn’t want to mix people from 20 communities — now we have to be mindful of our largest events, like bringing in kids from 500 schools to mix in one” at state cross country, Anderson said.
Days before the meeting, the Big Eight Conference, comprised of Madison metropolitan and Janesville-area public schools, canceled its fall sports conference competitions by unanimous vote. Following other schools around the state deciding to go virtual to begin the school year, districts and teams were looking to the WIAA for guidance.
Football had been set to begin practice Aug. 4, and several schools around the state gave high remarks on summer contact and following safe practices in early camps. From social distancing to wearing masks while not “in a mode of exertion,” some board members, like Wauwatosa superintendent Phil Ertl, thought an earlier start was better than a delayed start.
“These kids will do anything to get back to playing sports. We talk about mental health — I can see it,” Ertl said. “These kids don’t come in to school for algebra — we can trick them into it — but to a lot of kids, this is their life.”
Paul Pedersen, nonpublic school at-large representative from Eau Claire Regis, agreed, saying “we need to get the kids back and busy, and we need to do it safe.”
The board voted against Ertl’s amendment that would have started the high-risk sports Aug. 24.
The CESA-3 option
Another option for schools is the “CESA-3 plan.” The 31-district collective in southwest Wisconsin sent a proposal to the WIAA last week suggesting moving the fall sports seasons to the spring, and pushing the spring sports to summer.
Board members sent out surveys to district administrators and the presidents of private schools to gather views on the plan, plus a couple of other delayed plans. Depending on location of the state and the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to autoimmune compromised people, opinions were divided.
Scott Winch, board member from Stratford, said that in his region, 91% of people surveyed didn’t want the season to start on time, compared to Willy Chambers of Black Hawk in the CESA-3 region, which was at 68% wanting to move fall sports into the spring.
“About 50% won’t agree with what you’re going to choose, and another 50% will agree with it,” Sobrilsky said. “Our job is to provide opportunities for our student-athletes to be involved.”
Bernie Nikolay of Cambridge covers a strong portion of Dane County, which has restrictions on public gatherings and mask requirements. He said there is “a growing number of schools … (that) have gone to virtual school to open the school year” and that a delayed start was preferred.
In the meeting, the board talked at length to allow schools instructing virtually to still be eligible to hold sports. Anderson said he was in favor of that option.
“School is still going on. It’s a different style and manner, but if you are in school and have students that want to get going, this year it would not be an issue with the WIAA,” Anderson said. He said that during internal conversations, it was discussed that if teams are assembling while school is doing virtual learning, the athletes wouldn’t be coming in and disrupting education.
Newcomer said that at Monroe, that decision would have to come from the school board and administrators, not him. He also said it might be difficult to have a student who chose Plan H to learn virtually for the entire year being able to play sports. However, he said, “our board has not discussed that yet.”
In the end, the board is allowing the CESA-3 plan as a fall back option for schools should a team need to pause during its early season due to COVID cases, or the district itself voting to move back.
“If we went into that direction, I am confident we could get it all figured out in time,” Anderson said of possibly following the CESA-3 plan. “Hurdles and concerns of our members are very real — what works best for you. I would advise on not getting too bent out of shape on making it a conference thing. Those with opportunities to play, it might be against bigger or smaller schools.
“I’m advocating for as much flexibility and as much creativity (as possible).”
Push-back from spring sports
Nearly all coaches associations for the spring sports teams were against the CESA-3 plan. This past spring season was canceled entirely, and coaches are concerned for their program’s future if the season is again hindered.
“Softball teams could be losing out on facilities, coaches and kids for club and academy teams. They asked that if we must put someone into the summer, it’s not them because they’ve already suffered so much,” said Stephanie Hauser of the WIAA.
A shortage of officials is a worry, too, said Wade Labecki of the WIAA. He said baseball programs have already been affected once by the pandemic and coaches are afraid of making families choose between club teams and travel and family vacations in the summertime. “(Many) fear low participation numbers (and) rural communities might not be able to stay alive for a summer season.”
The board also discussed other delays, such as a collective Sept. 1 and Sept. 15 start for all fall sports. Opinions were against a one-size-fits-all approach, as sports like girls golf and tennis would have its seasons cut to just four or five weeks — including just two weeks of regular season competitions. Pushing those sports to the spring, it was argued, would also not be feasible, as weather conditions in early March are not ideal to play golf or tennis, with many locations around the state still dealing with a large amount of snow on the ground.
Getting back to play
Dr. Kevin Walter, a health advisor to the WIAA, said he was proud of how schools that held summer contact periods in July followed recommended guidelines, which was encouraging for moving forward with fall sports. He talked about the benefits of athletes on young people — from physical fitness to mental and social health wellbeing — and said that if the WIAA were to punt on the fall sports seasons, other organizations with less oversight could swoop in and become a detriment to athletes and the WIAA. He advocated for returning to play safely and emphasized the need to mitigate the risks of spreading COVID-19 as much as possible.
“What I want to push forward is, as expected we have to know that this is not going away. We have to adapt. We have to learn to live with the virus — how sports will be played and how we will practice,” Walter said.
Anderson said the WIAA has been in discussion with the overseeing bodies of the 11 other Midwest states high school teams, as well as weekly video conference calls with all 50 state directors. Outside of Illinois, the rest of the 11 Midwest states are planning on continuing its fall schedule as planned, though other states have different schedules based on climate. Coastal states, however, have begun to adopt plans similar to the CESA-3 option.
“Those conversations have centered around hotbeds,” Anderson said. “We can adjust as we go forward. if we start school and sports on the same day and there’s an issue, it’s really hard to figure out and identify where that came from.”
If a school did push a specific team’s season to the spring, Anderson said the WIAA would not have an issue with dual-participation. “(It’s) not a WIAA issue. That’s a local issue. There is not a rule preventing an athlete playing two sports at once.”
Currently, some smaller schools allow spring athletes to play both softball or baseball and run track and field as a way to guarantee a program to continue. If volleyball or football get pushed back to the spring, the individual district could decide if it would allow players to participate in more than one season at once.
What was not decided was if a player also opts to play for a club organization at the same time as a high school team, which has not been allowed in the past.
Newcomer said the idea of an athlete playing two sports at once — for example, football and baseball — could become a health issue, and not a COVID-19 issue, but rather a concern of overuse.
“How safe is it going to be? It all comes back to having opportunities for the student-athletes, but making those safe opportunities,” he said.
The decision-making process is not over, Newcomer said. The WIAA gave its guidelines, but now it is up to the school districts to develop plans of action moving forward.
“A lot is going to happen in these next 7-10 days,” Newcomer said.