Just days after the Arizona Interscholastic Association Executive Board voted to cancel the winter sports season due to rising COVID-19 and hospital metrics, a re-vote in favor of allowing the season to begin as scheduled took place Tuesday during a special meeting.
The 5-4 re-vote in favor of winter sports beginning on Jan. 18 followed a vote by the same count last Friday that, at the time, canceled the season. Jim Love, who represents the Flowing Wells Unified Arizona School Boards Association and was against the season taking place last week, reversed course Tuesday and voted in favor of the season beginning.
Love said his decision to change his vote was largely due to his desire to give schools the choice whether to have sports on campus.
“This has been a very difficult decision for the Executive Board,” AIA Executive Director David Hines said in a press release. “They have been weighing the concerns of the medical community, including the AIA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, and the requests by our member schools. We all want winter sports to happen, but it must be done safely.”
The AIA board’s initial decision to cancel winter sports was met with backlash from players, parents and coaches across the state.
A small protest of athletes formed outside AIA offices shortly after the initial announcement to cancel winter sports. A group of athletes and parents returned Tuesday. A petition calling for a re-vote was created by a North Canyon student and shared across several social media platforms. The petition was signed by over 30,000 people in just a few hours.
Additionally, administrators and coaches immediately began brainstorming basketball, soccer and wrestling leagues independent of the Arizona Interscholastic Association. Several schools said via press release they would explore options to give athletes an opportunity to compete at some capacity. Though many remained optimistic the decision would ultimately be reversed.
“I kind of anticipate one of the five people would change their vote,” Mesa wrestling coach David DiDomenico said. “I really wasn’t that concerned, I think we just had to be patient.
“It’s a big relief. Now we don’t have to go through all the logistical stuff with another league. It’s a big relief.”
In approving the winter sports season to begin on Jan. 18, new recommendations were also adopted.
The board voted unanimously to allow two parents or guardians per player to attend as long as local mandates on the number of individuals allowed at events is not exceeded. Each school will be required to complete the AIA COVID-19 Athlete and Coach Monitoring Form on the day of athletic events. Those forms must be exchanged with opposing teams and will be monitored by officials. If the forms are not exchanged, officials will be pulled from the contest.
Additionally, masks must be worn at all times by coaches, officials and athletes, even those actively participating. Hines said any school that violates the guidelines will lose access to officials.
Chandler girls’ basketball coach Glenda Skalitzky said the mask requirement is concerning, especially for athletes with asthma.
“My biggest concern, to be honest, I have a lot of asthmatics,” Skalitzky said. “We’ve been practicing partially with masks in leu of possibly having to play with them. Half my kids do wear them on sprints, but my question is how strict will officials be? What if it falls below the nose? If they are having trouble breathing, can they pull it away to catch their breath?
“I have one girl who, if she runs a bunch of sprints, you can hear her from across the gym trying to catch her breath. It’s just having to manage that now but in light of everything, as a coach, I can do.”
Trent Elliott, the boys’ soccer coach at Desert Vista, said the new mask guidelines won’t have much of an effect on his team. Tempe Union High School District requires all athletes to practice with masks as it is.
If anything, Elliott says it may level the playing field against teams who did not have similar rules.
“We’ve been practicing with masks since we started,” Elliott said. “We were more concerned about going to another school where they weren’t mandated like they were for us. So, we are a little excited now that it’ll be a level playing field.
“I appreciate everything the board talked about and we are excited the 13 seniors on my team get to play their senior years.”
Todd Fazio, the head boys’ basketball coach at Highland, said he was pleased with the AIA’s decision to allow parents attend games. Especially in case of emergency, it is smart to have them there.
“If parents wear masks, I do think it’s important that a guardian be at an event in case something were to happen to their son,” Fazio said. “I thought that was a really good decision. It passed 9-0 so it must have been an easier one to decide than the kids playing.
“I think if you do two parents per kid in a big gymnasium, it shouldn’t be an issue at all. I’m glad parents get to watch their kid play.”
Saguaro head boys' basketball coach Lucas Ramirez was pleased with the AIA Executive Board's decision to allow winter sports to continue.
He reiterated the guidelines he and his team have followed since first being allowed to practice in November and said they will continue in that manner.
“We are grateful for the AIA's reversal of the decision,” Ramirez said. “We understand the realities of the virus and have respected it from the beginning. While this decision was not an easy on to make, we will honor it by doing the right thing every day by continuing to follow protocol and procedures given to us by health and medical professionals.
“We cannot wait to get back in the gym without student-athletes and prepare for the opportunity to compete. We are very happy for our school, community, student-athletes and their families.”