When seven people meet on a Zoom call for the first time, to largely make decisions concerning more than 3 million young athletes, it’s good to start with some commonality.
The seven who met Thursday afternoon to discuss the return of youth sports in California got to that space early in the 62-minute call, said Serra (San Mateo, Calif.)
football coach Patrick Walsh, and it led to what he called a “progressive, positive and open” dialogue.
Walsh, one of three coaches, California Interscholastic Federation Executive Director Ron Nocetti, Let Them Play co-founder Brad Hensley, and two Gov. Gavin Newsom staffers — Dr. Mark Ghaly and Jim DeBoo — planned to meet again early next week to continue talks on how to return youth and high school sports back safely and swiftly.
“There were a lot of similarities between every man on that call,” said Walsh, the organizer of the 700-member Golden State High School Football Coaches Community. “All of us have kids, all of them play sports and all of us care about sports. How do we all get to the same point in an expeditious way? The phone call did not impede that conversation.
“I felt like the aura of the call was positive. The spirit of the kids were in that room and on the call. Hopefully we can advance the ball down the field knowing that we can’t do this forever because at some point we’re going to run out of time."
Part of the positive feeling came from improving COVID-19 test results throughout the state.
That led Newsom to lift mandatory at-home orders on Jan. 25, which opened high school play this week for sports slotted in the purple tier: cross country, golf, tennis, swimming and diving and cross country.
Other contact or indoor sports, such as football, volleyball and basketball, are running out of time. Lifting or altering the current tier California system would go a long way to getting other sports started and finished by the end of the school year.
On Tuesday, the National Federation of State High School Associations,
the national governing body of prep sports, revised its May guidance
document on the risk of COVID-19 during high school athletics,
highlighted by the elimination of tiers assigned to specific sports.
"That was awesome timing for us," De La Salle (Concord)
football coach Justin Alumbaugh said. "It's not like we were saying 'we told you so.' It just supports what we've been saying and what people have been telling us. To get that information confirmed from a major institution like the NFHS was awesome."
Discussions of the tiers were mentioned Thursday, but more details will come next week Walsh said. The coaches group, which also includes Ron Gladnick, of Torrey Pines (San Diego)
, had met twice earlier with DeBoo, Newsom's top aide, but this was the first time they had met Ghaly, the state's Secretary of Health.
"I really liked his demeanor," Walsh said. "He's very pleasant, very thoughtful. I enjoyed the opportunity to meet the man."
Alumbaugh and Walsh said Ghaly was very receptive to the data that the Golden State and Let Them Play groups have supplied over the last three weeks, and encouraged more. Ghaly and DeBoo asked many questions, according to Alumbaugh and Walsh.
"Dr. Ghaly is a very bright man, no doubt about that," Alumbaugh said. "He understands what's going on. He's definitely aware of all the dynamics — the science, the data, statistics. He's far more of an expert that we are.
"The meeting was cooperative. It was positive. We're just trying to push the dialogue forward and they are too. Let's get this done."
Said Walsh: "I think everyone would love to come out with an announcement right now, but I did not anticipate that happening today, particularly since it was the first time we've had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Ghaly. It was a very good dialogue and discussion both ways. We're excited about setting a pathway forward."
So is Nocetti.
"Since the COVID-19 numbers have been trending in a better direction we definitely have had more frequent meetings with the California Department of Public Health and the governor's office," he said. "We feel those meetings are progressing toward a pathway to return. And we're going to continue to have those meetings."
Nocetti heads the organization that governs high school sports in the state and serves more than 800,000 athletes annually. Until this week, all California high school sports had been paused since April 3
due to the pandemic. It is one of 17 states that didn't play football in
the traditional fall season.
The CIF has maintained that football's end date this spring can go as late as May 1, though some of the state's 10 sections have adopted an April 17 end date in order to prepare for the 2021 fall football season.
An earlier end date means the pressure is on to get the season going sooner. Walsh and Alumbaugh are hoping sections will be more flexible.
"You go from the end date and work backwards," Walsh said. "If we can start sometime in early March that gives us 5-8 games. I think all reasonable players and coaches would be happy with that.
"It's important that both sides know the hard ends and realize that we don't have a lot of time. Do we have some time? Yes. Do we have a lot of time? No."
Thursday's meeting came a day after Newsom addressed youth sports during a press conference at the Oakland Coliseum.
Among the topics included physical and mental health, the guidelines, football, data and even a lawsuit filed last week
from two San Diego High School football players seeking an "immediate resumption of play."
In a stirring 32-minute press conference put on by the two advocacy groups on Friday, Gladnick had pleaded with Newsom to "help and engage with us," and to "work together."
Walsh said after hearing Newsom's remarks on Wednesday that he was more encouraged than ever that engagement is taking place. That was backed up with Thursday's meeting.
"I could tell he has put thought into youth sports in California and that's a great step in the right direction," Walsh said. "As we know, Gov. Newsom believes in sports and knows how much youth sports builds character, camaraderie, and self esteem.
"We are hopeful that the Governor will continue to look at the data and science presented to him and re-open the state for youth sports soon." Here is what Newsom said Wednesday in its entirety about youth sports:
"Last week we made an announcement and that allowed for youth sports like track and field to take place. It's just the levels that we are and have provided a framework to allow certain youth sports to take shape in competition.
"That said, we have been in very direct conversations. Personally, I launched those conversations last week. My team is in constant contact, trying to work through these different tiers.
"The red tier, you'll start to see baseball. In subsequent tiers, we'll get to football. But I'll be honest with you, a lot of this is driven by football and folks wanting to get a football season in. And I am deeply sensitive to that.
"As I said, I not only have four kids who want to be educated, but they love sports. So I recognize all of the benefits — physical and mental — as well as the benefits to teachers and parents who have kids who are engaged in physical activities in terms of our responsibility to support those children as well. We want to see this happen.
"We want to do it safely and a lot of great data has been provided by the same groups that are suing us. If I was concerned about lawsuits, I would have collapsed a year ago. We receive dozens of them every week. And some of them are from folks who are very close to us. It's clarifying. It allows for focus. Some are specious, political. Others like this I think are quite legitimate in terms of what they ultimately want to achieve.
"I share that and we are processing that. I am very hopeful, very hopeful — I really mean this — I am very, very hopeful that we can find a compromise here and I believe that's possible as long as these case rates continue to move in the direction they're moving."