ENTERPRISE — Parents, players, coaches and fans of all ages rallied in support of a high school basketball and wrestling season this year at the Wallowa County Courthouse. The hastily scheduled event drew more than 80 people, and featured talks by coaches, Wallowa County commissioners and athletes.
Both sports are considered “contact sports” and are currently banned by the Oregon Health Authority due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Oregon School Activities Association, because of the ban, cannot OK those sports for the upcoming season.
The rally organizers and others hope a change can allow the sports to be played.
“Thirty-five other states have been playing high school sports,” said David Howe, Wallowa High School principal and girls basketball coach. “They haven’t experienced problems. If OSAA could give us a reason for not allowing us to play, I could go along. But they have just banned the basketball season without an explanation.”
Rally organizers and Wallowa Superintendent of Schools Tammy Jones emphasized that schools wanted to adhere to rules for safety and health.
“We want to be sure that whatever seasons we open, we keep kids and families safe,” Jones said.
“Applying a one-measure-fits-all rule to all schools across the state does not make sense to students or the community (here),” rally organizer Dennis Sheehy of Wallowa said. “In Wallowa County, the total number or COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic is 76. The number of deaths … is three. It is obvious that the situation in rural counties like Wallowa County is very different from counties like Multnomah or Marion that have very high-density populations.”
In September, the athletic directors at all three Wallowa County high schools submitted a letter and proposal for a basketball season to the OSAA. They proposed a basketball season in November and December with restrictions that included a maximum of 45 spectators at each game, with masks required, or a total of 100 people in the gym, with no spectators allowed and only teams, coaches, officials and others essential to the game, including a person who would film the game. The proposal also included sanitizing the ball and many other measures.
The proposed “COVID-19 league” would be similar to the group of Eastern Oregon schools that played in the abbreviated “touch” football season, including Cove, Elgin, Imbler and North Powder as well as Wallowa, Enterprise and Joseph.
The OSAA never responded to the proposal, according to Howe. Wallowa A.D. Mitch Frye considered the proposal as being rejected.
Currently, OSAA has sanctioned a statewide “fall” sports season consisting of football and cross-country beginning in February.
“It’s obvious that playing football in February is not a viable option in Wallowa County,” Sheehy said. “Basketball should be played in the winter months to have the most social, mental and health benefits to students and the community.”
Student athletes spoke fervently in support of returning sports to the schools.
“I’ve been going to wrestling tournaments across the country, with thousands of kids from across all 50 states and from all those tournaments, not one participant has gotten COVID-19,” Enterprise High School wrestling and football standout Trace Evans said. “Sports have always been a huge part of my life. It’s been a coping mechanism. Having sports taken away from me has made all parts of my life extremely difficult. My motivation to get schoolwork done is way down, and I need to finish that online English course. It can be done. And I hope something is done about it.”
Carrie Hermens, Wallowa assistant girls basketball coach, spoke about the damaging consequences of the removal of sports and other extracurricular activities are having on students.
“The sudden loss of young people’s most cherished and anticipated high school experiences is having devastating consequences on their mental and physical well-being. School is more than just going to class and turning in your homework,” she said. “It is getting to be part of something bigger than yourself, and growing into a more mature and well-rounded person. That includes everything from public speaking in FFA to playing in a sports game with your whole town cheering for you.”
Hermens, like other speakers, pointed out that the few incidents of COVID-19 among youths made the ban on high school sports somewhat irrational. She noted that Oregon students have been playing basketball on “travel teams” across Idaho every weekend for months without any cases of COVID-19 or other adverse effects.
“It has become clear from the experiences of other states that with enhanced safety measures in place, we can safely allow these activities to resume,” she said. “Our kids should not have to suffer the consequences of unimaginative blanket decisions regarding sports and other activities that are handed down from the state. There is no time to waste. Please, please, please let them play.”
“In this county and similar counties in Eastern Oregon, schools and school sports are the backbone of the community,” Sheehy said. “Without school sports and other and other extracurricular activities, Wallowa County will lose even more of the fabric that connects and sustains people in our communities.”