AIA cancels winter sports season…but was there a better option?

For high school students who play a winter sport, the other shoe has finally dropped.

After several delays to the start of their season, the long-awaited worst-case scenario has finally arrived.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA), the state’s governing body for high school sports, just announced the cancellation of the entire winter sports season, which affects thousands of students in three major programs: basketball, soccer, and wrestling.

After already dealing with having the season moved back twice, from the usual start dates in early November to Jan. 5, and then again to Jan. 18, coaches and players were in no mood to find out their patience and strict adherence to the challenging and frustrating COVID guidelines has not earned them the right to play, after all.

The stop-and-go announcements have made it nearly impossible for coaches to hold players’ interest, and for the players to stay motivated.  And now this.

This decision by the AIA will go down in the history books as one of the most controversial ever.  The edict, in itself, is historic.  It’s the first time the AIA, which can trace its roots back to 1913, has had to cancel an entire sports season.

While it’s understandable on a certain level, since Arizona has become the No. 1 hotspot in the nation as the rate of spread of the virus surges, it’s also difficult for parents and their student-athletes to see why there can’t be alternatives to shutting down the entire season.

And there are some of their coaches who are already suggesting ways that could have avoided the devastating ramifications of the shutdown.

Richard Obert, the beat writer for high school sports at The Arizona Republic, spoke with some of those coaches.

Gary Ernst at Mountain View High School in Mesa suggested moving the season back another couple of weeks, to give the surge a chance to subside, and then playing a five-week season.  Ernst, the boys’ basketball coach at Mountain View who has the most basketball wins in state history, also threw out the idea of a spring season for just the varsity basketball teams, since the seniors are the ones most impacted by the cancellation.

Buddy Rake, the head boys’ basketball coach at Thunderbird High School would have liked the AIA to consider letting his Glendale Union School District put together a schedule of games that would include just the district schools, providing the kind of ‘bubble’ environment both college and pro teams have used to minimize the chances for spread.  Under his plan, players would be tested prior to each game.

There are, no doubt, other ideas out there.  And that’s what frustrates many of the coaches who felt the AIA didn’t explore enough options before taking such a drastic measure that will deprive so many students of having the opportunity to enjoy their senior season.

Many of those seniors are still looking for a chance to show off their skills to the college recruiters and maybe snag a scholarship.  And that doesn’t even address the emotional toll this decision will take on their well being.

To be sure, this was an extremely difficult call by the AIA Executive Board, which voted 5-4 to follow the advice of its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee and cancel the season.

But the fact that it was such a slim margin in the final vote, perhaps there’s enough dissent out there to step back and take another look at the decision.  And this time perhaps include more input from coaches, parents, and players.  After all, they’re the ones who have the most to lose.

I’m sure the AIA administrators took many factors into consideration, not the least of which is the legal liability involved, but maybe those most directly affected should have had a greater voice in the process.

Maybe it’s not too late.  There appear to be a lot of good ideas out there.  And there’s still time to take a second look.

But that call would have to be made quickly.