High school athletes were able to compete after all, as ADs navigated new rules and dealt with unruly adults
One athletic director said he was called a murderer.
Several parents, from different schools, fired off a certain four-letter word not in the vicinity of the AD, but right in the AD’s face.
“Was it worth it for the kids? Yes. For the parents, it was the worst experience I’ve ever had in a school setting,” the AD said.
To be fair, it was not every parent. Of course not. But a few tried to kill the joy associated with the return of sports.
The bizarre, unprecedented high school sports calendar of the winter/spring of 2021 is now complete in Southwest Washington. Clark County Today interviewed five athletic directors, anonymously, to talk about their experiences while trying to coordinate sports schedules and policies while the rules were constantly changing during the pandemic.
It started out as a simple plea to play. Parents, athletic directors were told, just wanted opportunities for their children to play high school sports.
To that end, all of the ADs interviewed for this story said the student athletes were the priority. For them, the ADs could take the criticism, could handle being on the receiving end of horrific language, and they could have their own integrity questioned.
“It was 100 percent worth it,” an AD said. “When you think about the athletes and the experiences that were taken away from them, we’re very proud we were able to provide something for them this year. Overwhelmingly, for our athletes, it was a positive experience.”
“I never had a negative interaction with a student athlete through the entire year,” another AD said. “The student athletes were appreciative to the nth degree that they were able to play. That makes it all worth it.”
Still, the notion that parents just wanted their children to be able to compete? That deteriorated quickly, the ADs say.
“It blew me away. ‘Whatever we need to do to get our kids to play.’ That was so far from the truth,” an AD said. “It was really sad.”
“The honeymoon was over almost instantly,” another AD said.
Fans required to wear masks? Or sit in designated areas for social distancing? That was too much to ask for some.
“Getting folks to adhere to the guidelines? That was a frustration,” an AD said.
Another AD did not understand the defiance displayed by some of the parents.
“If athletes have to play in a mask, I’m pretty sure you can sit and watch with a mask,” the AD said. “Hopefully your love for watching your child play is stronger than your hatred for wearing a mask.”
In at least one instance, hatred won that battle. Another AD gave a family an ultimatum: Wear the mask or leave. The family left. The AD said he was heartbroken that a family of an athlete would do such a thing.
Anson Service, a doctor of clinical psychology who operates Adventure Psychological Services in Vancouver and Kelso, said that sporting events have always been a place for people to escape. But there was no escape from COVID-19, pandemic protocols, and the politics, real or perceived, associated with all the decisions.
“What really affects people is when they don’t have any control,” Service said. “That’s what really drives a lot of depression, feeling like they don’t have options, or feeling they are being forced into a decision.”
Government officials not only called for mandates, oftentimes those mandates would contradict each other, Service said. Scientific findings tended to be “flexible.”
“Now you add those things, and you tell them they can’t do one of their favorite things in the world (attend a sporting event) without bringing in, in their minds, a political mandate,” Service said.
For some, that was a boiling point.
The athletic directors were the proverbial punching bags for those who disagreed with the guidelines.
The AD who was called a murderer? That came about right before the cross country season, when runners were told they would have to wear their masks while in competition. That rule changed soon enough, but not until after the AD heard from one mother who said the AD was a torturer.
“She said, ‘You are going to have a death on your hands. You’re going to kill my kid,’” the athletic director said. “I was speechless.”
“I can’t believe somebody said that. Actually, I can believe that,” said Service before emphasising that the people who express those extreme views are the outliers. “The loudest ones get all the attention.”
School districts did not demand athletes wear masks. The governor’s office and the department of health made those requirements. Schools had to enforce those rules. Athletes had to play by those rules, or not play.
High school athletes across Clark County came to their own conclusions. They did not want to wear masks, but they decided playing sports was more important to them than their comfort level or how they looked.
“We just wanted our kids to play. We just wanted our kids to play,” an athletic director said. “I thought there would have been more appreciation for the coaches, admin, referees, everyone involved. ‘Wow, this can be taken away from us. We should be responsible and reasonable.’”
Not only were the ADs called out, but so, too, were game officials. Verbal abuse of officials had been a problem long before the pandemic. It just took on greater significance the past few months.
Officials associations have been losing members for years. Fewer officials signed up during these COVID seasons. Some sub-varsity games were cancelled due to lack of officials. Some basketball games had two officials instead of three.
“Nobody wants to do it anymore,” an AD said.
Athletic directors are also accustomed to receiving parent complaints about coaches. That’s not new. This year, however, did bring about a demand that no one could have anticipated prior to the pandemic.
Some parents of seniors demanded that athletic directors instruct their coaches to play seniors over juniors or sophomores. The justification? It’s been a horrible senior year for them, so seniors should play more than the younger athletes who have more seasons in the future.
“Everybody’s had a crappy year,” one AD noted. “It’s still a varsity sport. Coaches have to coach. They still have a responsibility to the team to compete.
“A little lack of perspective there was a frustration for sure.”
In the end, every athlete in Southwest Washington was given the opportunity to compete in every sport sanctioned by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. Sure, some choices had to be made. Seasons were shortened. And for the big schools, winter and spring sports were held at the same time. But every sport that was offered in, say, the 2018-19 school year was offered in the last four-and-a-half months.
Back in November, no one thought that was probable.
A number of people made that happen. The coordination started with athletic directors, meeting online several times a week beginning last summer, trying to come up with new plan after new plan as state guidelines changed.
“That’s my biggest complaint. The people had no idea of the time and effort to do everything as humanly possible to get athletes back,” an AD said.
“It was a ton of work,” another AD said. “By the time we were done, to see how it positively affected kids, it was 100 percent worth it.”
And another AD: “When you see the kids competing and the joy they are experiencing, it’s definitely worth it.”
It is finished now, this sprint of the three sports seasons in less than five full months. Athletic directors are moving forward with the idea that traditional, full sports seasons will be back for the 2021-22 academic year. Fall, winter, and spring sports with a normal calendar of events, including state playoffs. That is the hope, anyway.
The athletic directors also understand that in a typical year, issues will come up with scheduling, coaching, officiating. That’s the job.
They just hope that it all can be handled with a little more respect moving forward.
“If we can get through this year, we can get through any year,” an AD said. “I feel like every year after this will feel like a cakewalk.”
The athletic director paused before continuing.
“Wishful thinking anyway.”