When COVID-19 lurked in the shadows around the world in January and early February, not many people in America were taking the threat seriously. Then, in mid-March, the NBA shut down with an infected player, following the lead of professional soccer abroad. Within days the entire sports world came to a standstill — college basketball, hockey, and prep sports were all canceled far and wide. The Olympics too.
Then MLB postponed the start of its season, NASCAR and the PGA also went silent. Talks between players unions and ownership were had, negotiating when and how each sport could get back to playing — and whether or not fans could be in the stands.
Pocketbooks have been affected at the professional and collegiate level. At the prep level, many students lost closure of the high school careers as the spread of the virus and stay-at-home orders kept schools closed and spring sports benched.
The summer has come — and is almost gone. Major League Baseball is set to return this weekend. The NBA and NHL are right there too, in their bubbles, ready to start play at the next whistle. And while football teams in both college and the NFL are wading the waters to see what works out, the threat of not playing the season is very real.
College conferences, like the Colonial and Ivy leagues have shuttered their fall sports seasons for all teams. The Power 5 conferences of the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC and Pac-12 have begun discussions of playing a conference-only schedule or even moving the season to the spring. The University of Wisconsin alone could lose up to $100 million in revenue for not having a football season. That lost money doesn’t just affect those that play at Camp Randall on Saturdays — it spreads out to finance nearly all the other athletic programs and the school itself.
High schools aren’t talking about lost dollars in the millions. They are talking about losing something money cannot buy — opportunity and memories for its students. What makes prep sports special is the camaraderie amongst the players and coaches, and the support of the faculty and community to those teams. There is a togetherness, almost a local sense of patriotism, when it comes to prep sports.
And right now, COVID-19 has that bond on the brink of collapse — if only for a few more months.
All around Wisconsin — and the country — school districts are trying to figure out how to best instruct students this fall. Meanwhile, county and state leaders are following the still-growing case counts and making determinations. The hodgepodge of guidelines and orders to stem not just the curve, but the overall infections, makes coming up with a one-size-fits-all decision by the WIAA not just hard, but impossible.
Dane County is limiting group gatherings again, which means no sports competitions for the time being. This affects the Badger Conference and Capitol Conference in our area, with many opponents of Monroe and New Glarus calling Dane County home. The Big Eight conference — which includes public schools from Madison, Middleton, Sun Prairie, and Janesville — has now opted to shutter its conference competitions. Many other districts are opening the year in virtual learning anyway, which means sports are also shuttered from competition.
The average enrollment of the Big Eight is among the highest in the state, and the talent exuded in all sports is almost unmatched. The Big Eight consistently sends a program to the state tournament in practically every sport all school year. With the entire conference out of play, the dominoes of the WIAA have begun to fall on fall sports.
CESA-3, a collective group of schools in southwest Wisconsin, sent a proposal to the WIAA to move the fall sports season to the spring, then bump the spring sports season to the summer. Some people argued on Twitter or Facebook, or had conversations in the streets with others about the merits of such a move — remember, there are still people who think COVID-19 is a hoax. Arguments and debates arise of people who want the season — and school year — to stay intact as if nothing is happening. Others fear that spring sports will again “get the shaft” with a shortened season that will inevitably be affected by club sports and summer vacations.
I hear those concerns. I understand them. But if the WIAA wants to do what’s best for the collective whole, it needs to follow this plan. As it stands, I cannot foresee a fall prep sports season happening — at least not from start to finish, though the delayed start may help with that. I fear the winter season will again be affected as well.
In fact, I’ve been saying (here in my columns as well) that March 2021 will be likely the time when things begin to feel normal again. Why that time? Because March 2021 has always been the realistic best-case-scenario for when a working vaccine will be available and have been distributed to the masses. Until then, the virus is not going away — especially in America, where the daily case counts are still higher than every other country in the world.
Pushing the seasons back, even trimming them from three months to two months of competitions, will allow for some of all three sports to be played. With Fall 2021 seemingly the time to get back to normal, that’s not a lot of a break between football seasons, let alone finishing up baseball and then putting on the football pads right away. Maybe the WIAA could take this time to — gasp — alter its seasons entirely moving forward.
Here’s some heresy that comes from practicality: Fall sports should start practice Sept. 1; winter sports Dec. 1; and spring sports April 1. Football shouldn’t start in early August, where two-a-days are had in 100-degree heat, just like softball and baseball shouldn’t start in mid-March when there is snow on the ground in 75% of Wisconsin counties. Push them all back 3-4 weeks. Family vacations can adjust. School districts can adjust. Most of the kids won’t care anyway — they just want to play.
While they’re at it, the WIAA can take into account how it divides up the divisions for postseason play. Enrollment’s in the future don’t need to be used from the year before — numbers from the third week of the current year could suffice, let alone the numbers from Jan. 1 and March 1.
Regardless of what to do 365 days from now, I can already hear the questions rolling in. “But Adam, what about club sports?” What about them? Maybe club sports should “take a year off,” and let high schools have their day. Or, if a player decides they’d rather play club over school, let them. AJ Vukovich, a star athlete that just graduated this spring from East Troy, opted for club baseball instead of playing with his school and it worked out for him — he was drafted in the fourth round of the MLB draft in June and just signed a multi-million-dollar contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Good for him. I applaud his hard work and skill and decisions he made to take the best route available to him.
But most kids aren’t amazing athletes like Vukovich. Most students play the sport because they love the sport, they love their teammates and they love to compete. So the Legion baseball league and its 240 clubs in Wisconsin sit out another year so that 400 schools can have a chance to have a season? That’s fine with me. AAU basketball is huge in the summer, and a lot of players that compete in those leagues and travel have aspirations of playing in college — let them.
Do you want to watch three seasons of prep sports for this year’s seniors? If yes, you should hope this plan takes hold. Because in my opinion, there won’t be a fall season available for many. It is the truly the easiest plan to get behind, even if seasons are shrunk from three months to two. Do we want to play, or no?
The only fair plan out there that affects all high school student-athletes in all Wisconsin districts and all sports equally — which nobody anywhere seemingly wants to acknowledge — is we just cancel all three seasons and wait until Fall 2021 to restart.
— Adam Krebs is a reporter for the Times and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, wear a mask. It’s not about “your rights,” it’s about loving your neighbor. It’s a very pro-life stance. And it will go a long way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which in turn means sports can ramp back up to full boar faster. That is inarguable.