PHOENIX — Just four days after the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s executive board voted to cancel the winter sports season, that decision was reversed.
A flood of emails and phone calls from parents, coaches and students were unleashed upon board members and other AIA administration after last Friday’s vote, which was 5-4 to cancel the season. Many pleaded to have the opportunity to play winter sports.
The board’s decision was guided by a recommendation from the AIA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee to cancel, citing alarming COVID-19 numbers across the state.
The responses received were heated, emotional and sometimes angry and aggressive.
AIA executive director David Hines said board members had been harassed and threatened, which he said was inexcusable.
“This is a very difficult time for our board,” Hines said. “They are in a no-win situation.”
There were also many responses that showed support and agreement with the original vote.
Through a Zoom meeting which was available to the public via live stream, AIA officials and board members met Tuesday morning. The meeting was held due to the overwhelming response to the first vote, and to see if a second vote was appropriate.
There was agreement to reconsider the matter, and the board ended up voting again. This time, the vote was 5-4 in favor of continuing the winter sports season, beginning Jan. 18, with everyone required to wear face masks at all times.
The swing vote was board member Jim Love, who represents the Arizona School Boards Association. Love voted to cancel the season last Friday, but he changed his vote Tuesday.
“I am going to vote yes this time because I want to give schools the choice” to make their own decisions about whether or not to play sports, he said.
All of the other board members held firm in their original positions. Those who originally voted to play the season discussed the potential for COVID concerns and spread of the virus to be worse without the structure of the AIA.
Coaches and parents immediately got together to start discussing formation of their own leagues or kids transferring to charter schools in the wake of the board’s initial vote.
Jeannine Brandel, board member representing the 4A Conference and athletic director at Flagstaff High, likened the situation to a dam.
“When you dam a river, the water has to go somewhere. And the same can be said for our students,” she said, describing how kids will go elsewhere, including club teams and charter schools where COVID restrictions are not in place.
Other board members were still convinced that having the AIA play a winter sports season was a bad idea.
William Duarte, who represents the 1A Conference on the board, said one of the biggest concerns is people in Arizona who continue to disregard COVID-19 mitigation strategies. While he acknowledged everyone cares about the kids and what happens to them, he said there are other individuals involved who could contract the virus.
“I believe ignoring the SMAC committee’s recommendation is a mistake,” said Duarte, principal and athletic director at Superior.
Board member Tim Carter represents a school accrediting company called Cognia. He described the division and vitriol that has accompanied the discussions over sports and in-person schooling as “tearing the community apart,” adding that “we do not have to make this personal.”
Several people on the Zoom call, watched by more than 4,200 people at one point during the live stream on the AZ Preps 365 YouTube channel, pleaded for more civility in all future communication.
“What this world could use right now is more kindness,” said, Dr. Zack Munoz, board member and 6A representative.
There will be added modifications for winter sports. They are as follows.
- A mandate for everyone, including coaches, players, officials and anyone else at events to wear a cloth face mask that covers the nose and mouth throughout the entirety of the contest. Neck gaiters are also acceptable.
- As for fans, exceptions will be made for family in some cases. Two parents or legal guardians per athlete may attend a game if county or school guidelines allow it.
- Each school must complete an AIA COVID-19 Athlete/Coach Monitoring Form on the day of all games and contests and provide a copy to the opposing school prior to that game.
Schools that violate the mandatory modifications will lose access to AIA officiating, including in the middle of a game.
Media members are allowed to cover games, but they must first receive permission from the host school’s athletic director.
Hines said 16 others states require masks during athletic competition.
“A mask will be required, no exceptions,” he said.
Hines described how difficult this decision has been for the board members.
“They have been weighing the concerns of the medical community, including the AIA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, and the requests by our member schools,” he added in a statement. “We all want winter sports to happen, but it must be done safely.”
An emotional Toni Corona, board president, also pleaded for more civility, citing how difficult it has been for board members and others to be verbally attacked when all they want is what’s best for the students.
“Today, very difficult decisions were made and rendered,” she said.
Coronoa said she received many emails from students, read them and appreciated all of them.
School districts have the ability to make their own decisions, as one Pinal County district did shortly after the board’s vote.
The Apache Junction Unified School District released a statement saying it had made the “difficult decision” to not compete in winter sports this season.
“As we continue to review the Arizona Department of Health Metrics, the three benchmarks identified remain too far in the red to safely allow out student athletes to participate,” the statement read.