Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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Martinez: Don’t unleash your venom at WIAA; it’s not their call

High school sports

By , Columbian Assistant Sports Editor

So imagine you’re at a high school football game. I know, it’s been a long time, but just try.

Your favorite team is driving for the winning score in the final seconds of the game.

Suddenly, the ball carrier breaks free. There is only one defender between him and the goalline.

As the runner approaches, the defender crouches down to tackle the runner’s legs. Then the ball carrier leaps over the defender into the end zone for the winning score.

The players celebrate. The crowd goes wild. Fans are sharing video of the play on social media.

But, wait a minute. There’s flag on the field. The officials penalize the ball carrier for “hurdling,” the touchdown is nullified and the ball is moved back up field. From there, the defense holds, and your team loses.

Now elation turns to rage. You start yelling at the officials, claiming they robbed your team of a victory.

But here’s the thing. They didn’t. They called the play the way it’s supposed to be called, the way they are obligated to call it.

In high school football, a player may not leap over a would-be tackler while the defender’s feet are on the ground. It’s a safety issue.

I’ve seen the penalty called several times through the years. And I’m reminded of that call every time I see fans rail against the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association after another delay to the return of high school sports amid the current pandemic.

They blame the WIAA, and it’s not the WIAA’s fault. The WIAA is simply playing by the state’s rules.

The WIAA is making the prudent decision, and in some ways, the only decision it could make, given the circumstances.

Don’t believe me? Let me explain.

On one side, you have the state — Gov. Jay Inslee and the state health department. The state makes recommendations to schools about when to offer in-person learning and, in turn, school sports. And right now, the state is recommending against both.

Of course, the state says, the final decision resides with each individual school district.

On the other side, you have school districts around the state that say “Well, if that is what the state is recommending, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Caught in the middle is the WIAA.

The WIAA could announce the opening of any season, but if no school in the state decides to field a team, then there is no season.

That’s what happened earlier this fall. The WIAA offered schools an alternate season for fall sports like cross country, golf and tennis to be played in September and October. Not one school in the state took the WIAA up on that offer.

The WIAA listens to its member schools before making a decision. And when it became clear that no school would be ready to start sports in January, the WIAA slid the calendar back to February, hoping that an additional month could provide an opportunity for things to get better.

In the meantime, the WIAA has been advocating both parties — the state and individual schools — to provide the flexibility during the pandemic that would allow the return of high school sports.

Just check out the op-ed piece WIAA executive director Mick Hoffman wrote last month. You can find it on our high school sports blog.

In it, Hoffman cites several studies that have showed a low risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus through athletic competition. He also points out that denying athletes the opportunity to participate in high schoool sports may lead many of them to find alternates “that are cost prohibitive and have fewer safety measures.”

Hoffman also asks school districts to not be so concerened about the “bad optics” of bringing back school athletics before in-person education can resume.

“We cannot eliminate one portion of a student’s education because we had to modify another,” Hoffman wrote.

There are hopeful signs of flexibility. Last week, the state amended its guidelines for schools to offer a hybrid version of in-person teaching from a COVID activity rate of 75 per 100,000 residents to 200 per 100,000.

On the other hand, the statistics continue to get darker. This week, Clark County reported 427 cases for 100,000 residents and that number keeps growing week after week.

Make no mistake. The WIAA wants high school athletics to resume. Providing that opportunity to students is the reason it exists.

But before that can happens, it requires everyone to be on board — state officials, school districts and, frankly, every single one of us.