HUNTINGTON — West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission Executive Director Bernie Dolan says he is optimistic that there will be a 2020 prep football season in West Virginia.
Dolan spoke on the chain of events following the National Federation of State High School Associations released guidance for the state associations to help in their implementation of returning interscholastic events to the high school framework this week.
“We’re hopeful,” Dolan said. “You may not have fans at all the games, but we certainly hope that we can get the seasons in — even if it is just with players, coaches and media present.”
There are several factors that bring forth optimism on Dolan’s part.
First, West Virginia’s numbers have been steady throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the plan by Gov. Jim Justice to return to business is getting into its later stages.
Dolan, who is heading up a board with the West Virginia Department of Education focused on the return of athletics, said that while the information is changing every day, the current goal is for teams to have a full slate for the 2020 season.
However, Dolan also was mindful that such circumstances are a fluid basis that could change from week to week and even day by day, based on information that will continue to come in.
“We are planning on moving forward that everything will be played,” Dolan said. “Every day, that could change. We have a plan as if it is going to played because you have to be ready.”
By taking that stance, Dolan said that player safety is of the utmost importance, which is why he decided to go away from the NFHS recommendation to allow a one-year extension on physicals.
Dolan said that the pre-participation physical exam would help for those within a particular county of finding potential issues before play ever got started.
“You can’t legislate everybody to be perfectly safe,” Dolan said. “Just like playing football or any sport, there’s always inherent risks involved. We want to make sure we do everything we can to ensure safety.”
From a game-play standpoint, Dolan said that individual counties would be the deciding factors in what teams could play and what teams may not. The possibility exists that some counties will be allowed to and others will not participate in football — or maybe some other sports, too — in the 2020-21 school year, and contingency plans are being evaluated in that case.
“I would hope that everybody gets a full 10-game slate,” Dolan said. “We probably would look at adjusting if something happened and some schools had to drop out for a couple weeks. If that happens, we would help other schools try to get those games that they lost. I think we have to plan as if we might have six, eight, 10 games in our regular season going into the playoffs.”
With many counties giving the go-ahead on solidifying dates for the three-week summer period allowed under SSAC rules, the general feel is that many of the state’s football programs — nearly 115, by Dolan’s count — would be able to take the field this fall.
Many point to the competitive balance aspect of football, especially when it comes into postseason for teams who may not be able to play a full slate of games, but Dolan said the SSAC’s rating system also helps with this situation.
Dolan did admit that there are some aspects of the ratings system being examined in relation to this year, though.
“It does help us by having the system based on what you’ve actually done,” Dolan said. “There are still advantages to having more games because you have more bonus points. If you have to end short, then you can be ready for that.”
Dolan added that sports will not be brought back for financial reasons, adding that gate receipts from football contests have decreased in recent years, which has made high school programs more reliant on boosters.
Football is still a major provider of money for athletic departments to fund other programs, so the lack of a football season could hinder other sports.
“Financially, I would say football and basketball, in general, fund probably all the other programs,” Dolan said. “You may have some other programs break even, but there’s not many other programs making money when you consider travel, officials, uniforms and everything that goes into it.”
The NFHS breaks down high school sports into three categories: lower risk, moderate risk and higher risk.
Football is in the higher risk category, along with wrestling, lacrosse, cheer and dance.
Sports within the moderate risk category include basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, water polo, gymnastics, ice hockey, tennis and several track and field events.
Lower risk sports include individual track and field events, swimming, golf and cross country.
Dolan said that even if football cannot resume as scheduled, sports within the lower tier of risks will be decided on accordingly, allowing for high school competition in the fall.
“Obviously, golf lends itself to social distancing,” Dolan said. “Cross country — other than the start — lends itself, so we could do staggered starts and run. After that, it tends to be a little more difficult and we have to take it all into account.
“Right now, we are weighing all options, but we are moving forward because if you plan for it and it doesn’t happen, then you’re OK. If you don’t plan for it, you’re sunk.”