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The WIAA’s return-to-play guidance, a 13-page document that outlines how high school athletics across the state of Washington can resume play amid the coronavirus pandemic, was approved by state officials on Saturday night and released Monday afternoon.

The Washington State Department of Health, the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Governor’s office were all consulted on a wide range of guidelines that WIAA Executive Director Mick Hoffman said is subject to change.

One of the more noteworthy omissions was a timetable for the return of what the NFHS deemed “high risk” sports: football, dance/drill and cheerleading. 

Low risk sports can return under phase three of the WIAA’s guidance and moderate risk sports can return in phase four. The WIAA’s guidance does not say anything about which phase high risk sports can return to play, although the NFHS document was modified to say practices may begin for high-risk sports under phase three. That was taken out of the WIAA’s guidance, though still exists in the NFHS document. 

What does that mean for the prospect of a fall football season?

SBLive Washington reporter Andy Buhler spoke with Greg Whitmore Monday afternoon in search of an answer. Whitmore is the WIAA Executive Board President and the longtime head football coach and athletic director at Lind-Ritzville High School. He's also on the WIAA committee planning contingencies for return for football.

(Editor’s note: this conversation has been lightly edited for clarity)

SBLive: The WIAA’s return-to-play guidance detailed which phases “low risk” (phase three) and “moderate risk” (phase four) sports could return under. But for “high risk” sports — football, cheer, dance/drill — there wasn't a phased reopening. I understand that was actually omitted, though not sure by who (WIAA, DOH, OSPI, etc.). The football-specific guideline you helped write offered more details about a return. How did you square those inconsistencies?

Greg Whitmore: It's a challenge. There's gonna be little discrepancies until we get these (guidances) meshed well together. But I think what it comes down to, really is, you know, what are the gathering sizes gonna be? And, and so, you know, you think about phase three, typically you're thinking gathering the 50. That’s what we're going into the summer activities with.

I'm in phase two in Ritzville. So I can only have groups of five for coaches and players. So it's one thing running a camp, but then another thing running a competition. And then, you know, Ritzville versus Colfax. Can I have 50 on the field? It's 20 players each side, four coaches, you're about 50 right there. Does that count all your fans? Are they back on the track and we're spaced out six feet? But then you got, say, Sumner versus Bonney Lake and they got a crowd of 4,000. So that's not gonna work in phase three. So you think well, maybe they have to be in phase four. So do we have tiny schools ... can they play some games? 8-man schools? So it's just so difficult right now to think that far ahead. 

And so that's another work in progress trying to cross this hurdle now as far as, ‘what can we do during this summer time?’ Can I scrimmage, if I'm in phase three as long as there's only 50 there? OK, maybe. Better get clarification from your individual county health department and make sure your district’s OK with that and your risk management. As far as competitions, as far as I know, it doesn't fit neatly in that phase three, it seems like we'd have to have phase four. So it's hard because we're not used to having so many gray areas, and we're rewriting the playbook. We just didn't have a playbook when we were just starting out. And then when you put something out there, you find out ‘well, what if we do this, or why didn't think about this?’ You know, this is really the first week that schools are allowed to do campus in Washington. So as we go through the logistics in our own districts, you come up with these questions. ‘Well, jeez, this document doesn't really address this concern.’ And so yeah, it's we'll continue to meet both as that committee, I'm sure, and certainly the executive board and working on that document to try to clear it up and make those overlays mesh better.

SBLive: It sounds like you would almost prefer to be cautious here and saying that football fits neatly into a phase, as opposed to saying it does and then having to walk that back at some point.

Greg Whitmore: Yeah, I think so. Obviously, we get asked all the time, ‘what's your gut feeling?’ ‘What do you think, is football going to be back?’ We just have no way to know. All we can do is see what the current regulations and guidelines for social distancing and taking temperatures and tracking, and see how that works. If that's not working, it’s probably not gonna be real great for the prospect of having competitions and filling up stadiums and all that in the fall. 

It's just an unprecedented time. We're all struggling to wrap our brains around it and keeping people healthy. But we also know that part of our kids’ health is getting them back to return to activities. So that's the balance. It's similar to what a lot of cities are thinking the balance between keeping people safe and healthy and getting your economy going. With us, it's keeping people safe and healthy, and yet, getting our kids back out to something that's really healthy and really important for them too. So it's not an easy balancing act.

SBLive: About 99% of the time you and I talk, it's about something WIAA-related. But as a coach, how has your messaging been with your kids? How are you leading at this time?

Greg Whitmore: We've been meeting a couple weeks over Zoom calls or Google Meet and that sort of thing. The kids, especially the seniors, are getting nervous, and they think because of my position with the WIAA that I can see the future better, but I don't see any better than anyone. So my message is, number one, we're going to do all we possibly can within the guidelines. We're going to follow the guidelines, you know, whether we agree or disagree, it’s not really affecting our small little portion of Adams County. But we're going to follow the guidelines and we're going to not use this as an excuse, we're just going to use this to make us better and understand that life is all about adversity. This is a humdinger, but our character is how we react to that adversity. So we're going to do all we can right now. I’ve got them all in groups of four, they’re coming in, going to work with a coach. We’re not going to do too much football related, but we’re going to get them back moving, get them back exercising and getting strong and doing some football-specific movements. Backpedaling, running routes, stuff like that.

SBLive: I can't imagine in your coaching career you've ever faced something really quite like this?

Greg Whitmore: None of us have. Not in this nation. I think you go through life and you're gonna look back and you see how there's just some of these defining moments that you remember right where you were when you heard the news. For some people before me, it was John F. Kennedy getting shot. And of course 9/11, we all remember that day. Then Mount St. Helens. But some of those the pain the shock only lasted a few days. But this affects the world and our nation and every state and every student athlete. Is this something that's unprecedented? At times, I just think this can’t be happening. How can this be happening? But it is and we've got to deal with it and just hope to heck we find this vaccine, get this thing under control so we can get these kids back playing again.