State allows high school sports to resume, but fight is far from over

For the first time since mid-March 2020, there is hope for high school athletes in California.

For the first time since mid-March 2020, there is hope for high school athletes in California.

A new update on Friday from the California Department of Public Health paved the way for outdoor high-contact sports, including football.

While some low-contact sports, such as cross country and swimming, had already begun in select areas, Friday’s ruling opens the door for sports including soccer and football. Instead of waiting for counties to reach the orange (moderate) tier, all outdoor sports are now allowed in counties with COVID-19 case rates at or below 14 per 100,000 people, which currently includes San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

The next step is for the City and County of San Francisco to approve the same regulations that have been approved at the state level, as Santa Clara and other counties have done. So far, San Francisco has not publicly committed to the regulations that were issued on Friday.

“The kids need the city and county health advisors to say yes,” St. Ignatius head football coach John Regalia said. “The kids needed something to look forward to.”

While San Francisco public policy can be an especially complex matter, there is precedent for frustrated parents and players succeeding against restrictive local governments. Santa Clara County had put a moratorium on sports that forced the San Francisco 49ers to seek refuge in Arizona, but after a January directive from the county inexplicably said that teams had to stay 25 feet apart in competitions, enraged parents and coaches pushed back and got the decision reversed in less than 48 hours, putting the county back in line with the rest of the state.

Football has been in a holding pattern for months, with sporadic workouts throughout the summer being halted and resumed as different counties put out inconsistent restrictions. Players then sat and waited throughout the fall as more than two-thirds of the country completed its season, and the possibility to get on the field at all looked bleak as COVID-19 case numbers rose during the holiday season and an April 17 deadline to complete the season loomed.

With Friday’s ruling, there now seems to be a sense of optimism among young athletes for the first time in over a year. With two weeks of practices required before teams can play games, teams could at least fit in a five- or six-game season. In fact, the West Catholic Athletic League already has plans for games with teams split up into northern and southern regions. Under the current plan, the three major Catholic schools (Riordan, Sacred Heart Cathedral and St. Ignatius) would all face each other and Serra, plus possible additional matchups against other league opponents. As for the much-discussed date of April 17, Central Coast Section commissioner Dave Grissom has said that he will allow teams to make up rescheduled games through May 1.

“Everyone from parents to kids to coaches to teachers is excited, no doubt,” Regalia said. “Now we have to keep following guidelines and adhering to restrictions to remain safe.”

Indoor sports including basketball remain on hold. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Indoor sports including basketball remain on hold. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Teams would undergo weekly COVID testing, and crowds at games would be limited to immediate family members who would be required to wear masks and stay six feet apart from other households. Masks were originally going to be required even when participants were playing, but those rules have now been eased to only require them when coaches and players are on the sidelines.

Sports that have the green light to begin when counties hit the goal of 14 cases per 100,000 people include not only football and soccer, but also baseball, field hockey, lacrosse, softball and water polo. However, many indoor sports, including basketball, would need counties to reach the yellow tier in order to be cleared to begin, a lofty goal even with hoops and other indoor sports slated to be played from mid-April until mid-June.

Rather than waiting around for COVID numbers to be reduced even further, University head basketball coach Randy Bessolo has decided to take action. He and Miramonte-Orinda coach Chris Lavdiotis have spearheaded a new group, the Bay Area Basketball Coaches Alliance, drawing inspiration from the Let Them Play CA group and organization of football coaches led by Serra’s Patrick Walsh and Torrey Pines’ Ron Gladnick that successfully worked to get outdoor sports back.

“The announcement on Friday did nothing for indoor sports in spite of what other states have done for safe play and the vaccine being out,” Bessolo said. “Fortunately, Patrick and Ron have already laid out a great blueprint for us.”

Bessolo and Lavdiotis held a Zoom call with 50 coaches on Monday night to lay out a plan that centers around working with the Let Them Play group, rallying local support and filing lawsuits, a move that has been employed by two football players in San Diego. Attorney Stephen Grebbing, who represented the San Diego players, was on the call.

“Forty-four states are playing basketball and other indoor sports without any problems,” Bessolo said. “We need to get to 1 case per 100,000 to reach the yellow, while it’s 21 in Arizona. I really feel like I was failing the kids without making a stand.”

Just as football coaches were working on behalf of all outdoor sports, basketball coaches are working for other indoor sports as well.

“For volleyball to be in the yellow tier is ridiculous,” Bessolo added. “The players are naturally spaced out for most of the game to begin with, and teams are on opposite sides of the court.”

While Gov. Gavin Newsom and health officials have been much more restrictive on indoor sports than outdoor, Bessolo and the other basketball coaches now have a model to follow, one that should continue to take shape in the coming weeks as athletes finally get a chance to take the field for their schools.

For the schools in the San Francisco Unified School District and the Academic Athletic Association, more hurdles remain as middle schools and high schools have yet to apply for in-person learning in any capacity. A San Francisco public health department directive back in October said that schools cannot begin sports until they send a letter of interest for a return to in-person learning, and to this point, no public high school in San Francisco has done so.

“We’re having discussions where something could break down the road, but nothing has happened for us yet,” AAA commissioner Don Collins said in his ever-patient voice. “Hopefully we can get that changed, and when things break, athletics can be the first thing they allow.”

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