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Tresolini: Despite approval, high school athletes deserved better from state board

Kevin Tresolini
Delaware News Journal

The state Board of Education did the right thing Thursday night in approving the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association’s previous ruling to belatedly begin fall high school sports.

But the process was overly excruciating, right down to the narrow 4-3 vote.

And it left this observer wondering if the state board was in need of an education itself.

“How am I supposed to tell my choir that they can’t come back but something else can?” Board President Whitney Sweeney said at one point, repeating something she’d read in an earlier survey of school leaders.

Delmar takes the field during first half against Howard High School in the semifinal at Delmar High School Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. Howard won the game 50-29.

Of course, choirs and French clubs and marching bands and school yearbook staffs are not governed by a state agency the way high school sports are. Schools have every right to allow those groups to gather if they want. 

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This is what it actually came down to, after several hours of discussion and debate during the virtual meeting:

Donna Polk, the DIAA’s executive director, needed to explain that the DIAA is charged by the Department of Education with regulating high school and middle school sports competition

“It doesn’t mean that we’re more important than any other activity that is offered,” Polk said, apparently sensing the dire situation.

Padua's Sarah Pritchard (1), Ireland Giaquinto (18), Jacqueline Barnett (9), and Madison Wilhelm (8) celebrate winning the DIAA volleyball championship against St. Mark's last year.

“It just means that we have the platform right now because we have an association that is sanctioned by our government to conduct [activities] at this level. Other activities don’t have this platform. I just ask that the board not penalize us because we have the platform.”

At times, state board members failed to fully grasp what led to Thursday night’s unprecedented decision.

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On Aug. 6, the DIAA board of directors had voted 15-0 with one abstention to move fall sports to March and April, in between equally abbreviated winter and spring seasons because of COVID-19. The state board later approved that by a 5-2 vote.

But on Sept. 2, Gov. John Carney announced a modification of the state of emergency rules for youth sports. In that, the Division of Public Health had declared football could be played if players wore face coverings.

Why other fall sports – soccer, field hockey, volleyball and cross-country – had to earlier be sacrificed because of football is another subject I’m surprised didn’t warrant more protest from state residents. Those four account for more than three-quarters of fall participants and nearly all the females.   

Eight days later, the DIAA board responded emphatically, voting 14-2 for a condensed fall season with practices starting Sept. 28 and competition commencing the week of Oct. 19. That also had to be approved by the state board, which led to Thursday’s tense gathering.

Now, if a state board member had simply said, “I cannot support sending kids to athletic fields when most aren’t even going into their school buildings,” that would have been understandable.

Instead, Thursday’s discussion often came down to debates over “equity” and the aforementioned rights of students not involved in sports.

“There’s a whole lot of other extracurricular activities that might not have anything to do with a ball,” Sweeney said.

Appoquinimink's Colby Niggebrugge (left) dribbles at midfield as Middletown's Elias Gaytan-Lamas challenges him in the first half of Appoquinimink's 4-0 win at Middletown last year.

In another of her many monologues, Sweeney, after stating the value of sports for kids and families, said, “It’s not just athletics.”

Actually, it was. That’s exactly what Thursday’s decision was about.

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Certainly, board members deserve credit for their concern about all students. It’s their job. 

But when Audrey Noble mentioned the need for “equitable policies that represent all members of our education community, not just athletes,” she was also straying from the task at hand.

Telling a field hockey player she couldn’t play field hockey wasn’t going to change anything for someone missing out on a starring role in school theater. It was only going to dash the dreams of the hockey player.

Some board members also seemed to have trouble grasping why the DIAA had come back in front of them when it was clear the governor’s announcement and a significant change to the Division of Public Health's standards were the reason.

Tiffany Herrera of St. Mark's runs in the New Castle County Cross Country Championships last fall at Winterthur.

The DIAA’s September redo came after a thorough presentation by St. Georges coach John Wilson on safety measures being instituted for football and another by board member Dr. Bradley Bley on the value of mask-wearing.   

“Things are a lot different now than they were a month ago,” said Bradley Layfield, the Sussex Central principal and DIAA board chairman, referring to Division of Public Health regulations.

It wasn’t the first time he had to explain that.

Another confusing moment occurred when a survey of superintendents was brought up. In it, the question was asked if they still supported delaying the start of high school sports until December with three subsequent abbreviated seasons.

While 16 voted yes, many also added caveats about the willingness to adjust. There seemed to be an urge to place more weight on that survey than the prevailing decision made by DIAA board members, who represent school leaders.

Ultimately, the state board did the right thing – just barely – by putting the issue back into the hands of schools and districts. 

Some may elect not to play sports. And, certainly, nobody has to play if they don’t feel safe doing so.

But districts, schools and individuals deserved the opportunity to make that decision for themselves, and it was correct to grant it.

Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at ktresolini@delawareonline.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.