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Football season dodges tackle but still isn’t in the clear
The Oregon School Activities Association has delayed making a decision on the high school football season, with the hope Gov. Kate Brown could change the rules soon.
The high school sports governing body met Monday morning to consider the upcoming seasons for football, cross-country, soccer and volleyball. The executive board discussion included an expectation that Brown would change the county risk-level rules soon, with the hope she would allow more high school sports.
“Any change would be an improvement,” Weber said during the meeting, although he said he does not know what the governor will do.
A statement from the governor's office said they are reviewing with the Oregon Health Authority current COVID-19 data to consider changes to the sports guidance but could not give a timeline.
The board’s next scheduled meeting is Feb. 17, but Weber said the board is prepared to meet sooner if the state guidance for school sports changes.
The outdoor sports of cross-country and soccer can start practices as planned Feb. 22, with masks and limits on people present. Volleyball also will start practices Feb. 22, but matches would be prohibited by the risk level in 24 counties right now. OSAA gave schools permission to petition to move their seasons if they can’t play.
Football, however, was the big question. Noncontact conditioning practices started Monday, Feb. 8, but contact sports such as football are prohibited all over the state under the governor’s rules.
State rules require at least nine days of practice before a game. By letting practices go forward, OSAA keeps open the possibility of starting games the week of March 1 if the state’s rules change. OSAA can’t push the football season back indefinitely. The season must be over by May 1 because of rules requiring a break before the start of the fall season.
Brown handed over in-person education decisions to local leaders when she made the metrics advisory in “Ready Schools, Safe Learners.” The “Sector Risk Level Guidance Chart” that controls business, social and recreational activities, however, keeps high school sports decisions at the state level.
OSAA has advocated for more local control of sports, Weber said.
Oregon is one of the few states that has not held any official high school sports this academic year. OSAA juggled its calendar in December to start a shortened traditional fall sports season over the next two weeks.
On Monday, Weber preferred to emphasize the opportunities for students rather than what is not available.
OSAA gave schools four new options if full-contact football remains prohibited: 7-on-7, flag, lineman challenge and virtual combines. The 7-on-7 passing game and flag football don’t allow tackling, so they don’t fall under full-contact rules. The lineman challenge would let groups of students compete in events such as weight lifting and agility trials. The virtual combines would be more of an individual contest.
For extreme-risk counties, gym occupancy is capped at six people and a coach, too few to play a volleyball match. With 24 counties currently in the red, only about 50 high schools could have a volleyball season.
OSAA gave school leaders the option of moving their volleyball seasons or playing outdoors. Covered courts that are at least 50% open to the air would fall under the outdoor rules.
Schools that don’t play now, however, would face headaches with scheduling gym space and referees while other sports are going on. Smaller schools also would have trouble fielding enough athletes when traditionally separate seasons overlap.
OSAA also loosened its rules on coaches offering training and skills practices out of season.
OSAA is scheduled to discuss culminating week options Feb. 17. The county risk rules, including limiting contests to two teams, and the condensed post-season time as well as COVID-19 travel considerations would make traditional statewide championships mostly impossible.
OSAA Executive Board President Heidi Sipe said OSAA is focused on giving students as many sports opportunities as can be safely accommodated.
“Just because football doesn’t look the way we want it to does not mean that we won’t have kids on the field playing football, and that brings us a lot of joy,” she said.
Sipe, who is superintendent of the Umatilla School District, said she knows the disappointment out there and the desire to play football. She said adults must set a positive tone, though, and she is going to focus on the fact that these students may be Umatilla High School’s first flag football team, “so let’s have some fun with it.”
Sipe said the opportunity to play sports again in her northeastern Oregon community over the next few weeks will alleviate some student anxiety “and start to let them feel like kids again.”
“I think we are forgetting that our kids are just experiencing so much in this pandemic, and they are capable of pivoting and making the best of the situation,” she said. “These are dark times, but when we look back, our student athletes will have provided some of the light that helped us get through.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA