Pro, College Football Have Shown Us That Sports Can Still Be Safe

Looking back at my prediction a couple months ago that the NFL season would be scrapped due to COVID-19, boy am I glad I was wrong.

Like many of you, I’ve been loving the first month of the pro football season, thanks in large part to the 5-0 start by the Seattle Seahawks. We’ve seen a few virus-related issues — the Patriots and Titans come to mind — but for the most part, it’s been business as usual around the NFL. 

The same can be said for the college football conferences that decided to play through the pandemic. Despite dealing with some campus outbreaks early on, the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and others have experienced few virus-related complications this fall. It’s hard not to wonder if the Pac-12 and Big Ten could have pulled off the same feat. 

As someone who sides with science over politics, I supported the leagues — including the GNAC, home to Central Washington University — that decided to proceed with caution and postpone their seasons. Unfortunately, CWU’s plans for a spring football campaign were recently dashed by league officials, but I’m glad to hear that the Pac-12 and Big Ten will kick off an abbreviated fall schedule early next month.

One reason for that decision, I would have to guess, is that we’re now more than a month into the season and there haven’t been any significant virus outbreaks in the college or professional ranks. With that in mind, many of us are asking ourselves what might have been — not just with the Huskies, Cougars and Wildcats, but also with our high schools.

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about “just let the kids play,” and I admit that I’m intrigued. I believe we need to do what’s best for public health, so I don’t agree that we should just throw the doors open like they did in Florida and Texas. But there could be some kind of happy medium where the student-athletes are allowed to compete, even if it’s only against a handful of schools in their geographic area.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 here in Yakima County has diminished considerably since mid-summer, and studies have shown that young people who become infected tend to bounce back quicker than the older crowd. What would be wrong with giving healthy high-schoolers — whose families agree to the risks — the opportunity to play football, soccer and volleyball? 

Would it be any riskier, from a public health standpoint, than allowing restaurants and gyms to open at limited capacity, or permitting churches to hold small indoor gatherings? Is it a given that COVID-19 will infiltrate our local prep sports community? Couldn’t all of the coaches and athletes agree to limit their contacts for two months so the teams could enjoy a shortened season? Even if they can’t compete against other schools, shouldn’t we at least give our student-athletes a chance to practice with one another?

These are all valid considerations, and I am admittedly torn. I want to see youth sports return as much as the next guy, but I’m also hesitant to invite the possibility of a sports-related outbreak that might contribute to the death of elderly and immuno-compromised community members.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) doesn’t think it’s a good idea — or at least can’t say because they’re required to follow state health guidelines. If the WIAA or some member schools decided to start back up and someone dies or becomes gravely ill as a result, the insurance companies would have a field day. That’s how it’s been explained to me, anyway. 

While many athletic directors and school boards around the state are open to experimenting with the idea of a partial restart of prep sports, they know they would be facing financial ruin — and the guilt that their actions led to a negative outcome — if an outbreak did, in fact, occur.

As of now, liability is the main reason why schools can’t participate in sanctioned activities until they are given the go-ahead from the governor’s office. That’s not to say everyone who is allowed to play would agree to take the risk, but many athletes, coaches and officials would be out there right now if they could be. 

The way things currently stand, everyone around here remains in a holding pattern until Yakima County enters phase two of the state’s Safe Start plan. Our infection rate continues to improve with each passing week, and I’m hopeful that we’re not too far away from seeing small-group practices around the Valley. 

Achieving phase-three status is realistic by the end of the year, which means we could return to an interscholastic event schedule by early 2021, as outlined by the WIAA. I’m trying to remain hopeful about that possibility, although in many respects, it still feels a million miles away.

For now, I’m just going to continue reveling in the Seahawks’ spectacular start, the Sounders’ position atop the Major League Soccer standings, and the prospect of some Pac-12 football in a few weeks.

Beyond those glimmers of excitement, every day feels about the same, except that it’s getting darker earlier and the air is getting cooler. I’ll just continue to hole up at home and wait for some good news on the high school sports front. 

The games must go on, even if we have to wait until 2021. But, if you ask me, our student-athletes should be allowed to take the field sooner than that.

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