MUNCIE — So much for riding off peacefully into the sunset.
With corona virus concerns shutting down high schools and sports among a litany of ever-growing social restrictions, Bobby Cox won’t be having a quiet final school semester before the Indiana High School Athletic Association Commissioner retires.
“Somebody asked me the other day, are you going to make to August?,” Cox said. “I told them, I’m not sure I’m going to make it to five o’clock. Like we’ve said, there’s no handbook for this. It’s uncharted waters, but we’ll navigate ‘em. I feel pretty good about where we are right now.”
The moment of levity aside, Cox knows the seriousness of the circumstances and the potential ramifications of choices that are made.
“It’s changing so rapidly, new information comes and you have to synthesize that and the impact it’s going to have on our schools,” he said. “I feel like it’s too early to make a decision about what might happen in May and June. We didn’t want to cancel everything without even giving ourselves an opportunity to re-visit it. I think it’s pre-mature to cancel right now. It could get worse. If it does, we’ll make the appropriate determinations. If we keep a level head, pay attention to the facts, take precautions as we always would, do the things we should be doing to keep kids safe, I think we will be fine.”
Cox addressed a variety of related topics in an interview during Saturday’s state gymnastics meet at Ball State.
The Sports World
The NHL, NBA, MLB and MLS have all postponed their seasons, while the PGA and NASCAR, among other organizations have pushed back events. Collegiate levels have completely shut down seasons and tournaments for the spring, but the IHSAA has left the door open for a possible return of the boys basketball state tournament and spring sports if/when schools re-open on April 13.
“We have a different scenario with our student-athletes than the NCAA or anybody else does,” Cox said. “A lot of our schools are going to be out, so it’s going to be pretty quiet. I think it will give us time to evaluate what we want to do. If there’s any positive to this, and I can’t see very many, the reality of it is this happened at about as good a time as it could, respective to schools, because they’re recessing anyway. Now they can just expand that, maybe get their arms around what’s going on, get people away from each other for a while, disinfect their buildings and we’ll see where we’re at.”
Cox chose to proceed with the gymnastics finals with the knowledge that there were no confirmed cases of the virus in Delaware County. State-mandated rules about how many people could be there (no more than 250) meant no fans could attend.
“We felt really comfortable about bringing kids to this event,” he said.
Up until early Friday, the plan was continue with regionals under attendance limitations. Two sites had to be replaced late in the week, while the IHSAA was unable to find a host for a third in Class A. That and the rash of school closures prompted Cox to postpone the tourney.
“We had 16 regional sites and 15 were being hosted in counties that had no confirmed cases of the outbreak, so we felt pretty good about that,” Cox said. “But the reality of it is it’s a tournament, not a bunch of games we’re just playing. If everybody can’t play, then no one can play. We don’t know yet, but we need to keep our doors open, our thoughts open, our options viable and then we’ll figure out what can happen, what can’t happen.”
The tournament was bumped back in the late 70s and early 80s by a blizzard and a coal crisis, but it was ultimately played, as it has been since 1911.
“I’d hate to think right now our basketball tournament is over,” Cox said. “We’ve played through the wars. We’ve never missed a year since it started. I’d hate to think we’re going to miss a year because of a virus, but that might happen. If it does, we’re all going to be sad, but we’ll deal with it and move on. At the end of the day, we have to make sure the kids, fans, coaches, everyone is safe. That’s the first consideration.”
If school resumes in April, which looks much less likely now that it even did Saturday, Cox said they are looking at a range of possibilities as how to proceed with the tournament.
“The tournament we know, it might be some consolidated version,” he said. “There are a lot of options. We’ll survey our members. One of the things we have to be considerate of is, if we go back, we have a spring season. While that might not be a real challenge for larger schools, it’s a significant challenge for our small schools. If we can start the tournament back up in April or May, that kid’s also one of the best baseball players, maybe it’s two or three kids and now we compromise that team and put them in a tough spot.”
Another factor is facilities.
“We don’t even know what venues might be available,” Cox said. “Bankers Life Fieldhouse is wide open right now because about everything they have seats over 250 people. But if this thing gets worse, they may close down.”
Since Cox spoke, Bankers Life has shut its doors through mid-April.
“Those of us old enough to remember, we postponed events in those days to the spring,” he said. “One year, we had the wrestling in New Castle the next week. I’m hopeful we can do that with basketball. At least it’s only one (sport) and not multiple like in those days, so that’s not unprecedented. Now, we have a month break. It’s an opportunity to take a pause, maybe it’ll be a month, look at everything, see where we’re at, and make some better decisions. I’ve got a (computer) bookmark for the health department. I literally look at it every six hours.”
How much time do the various sports need to be able to have any kind of truncated season?
“We have a minimum number of contests students have to participate in,” Cox said. “I think we’ll survey of our members, principals and athletic directors, see what they feel would be a minimum number to be ready to play in a tournament. We’re going to look at it in April and see when we can get started again. I think this virus will round its corner eventually. We don’t know when that will be, but we monitor it every day and if we see that there will be a turn for the better, we feel confident and our schools feel confident, then we’ll proceed.”
The regular-season events, Cox noted, are at the discretion of the member schools.
“We have not suspended,” he said. “If they decided they’re not playing, that’s their call. (Muncie) Burris is part of Ball State, Ball State has suspended, subsequently Burris has suspended. Other schools might make that determination. We would fully support that. If there are no restrictions from the governor or legislature or department of health and they can fall within those constraints, they can go ahead and participate. When we have a pulse for how this is evolving, then we can make a better decision.”
Cox doesn’t favor extending the tournament series beyond June.
“Families and kids have other things going on in those months and for us to encroach on those, I don’t think it would be a really good plan,” he said. “We have venues already secured, it’s difficult to secure those beyond the days we have them.”
Social Media/ Shared Information
Cox equated decision-making in the Twitter and Facebook generation like an official making a block-charge call.
‘We’ve had swine flu, other things, what we didn’t have was social media,” he said. “There’s a bit of a fear, a measure of panic, information, mis-information. You put all that together in a world where it can go viral immediately, it creates a whole new set of challenges for those of us who have to make these decisions. The thing with social media, half the group is supportive, half the group is not. We can’t worry about that. Kids never dreamed it would be their last game, they’re trying to process that. For some, it’s their last ever game, now what do we do? There’s a lot of emotion. The best we can do is consult our own health departments and government to give us guidance. A lot of people are disappointed.”
Given the unbounded nature of the virus, Indiana far from alone in dealing with the pandemic as state across the country have either postponed or canceled.
“We’re not in this on an island,” Cox said. “We’re in constant contact with colleagues. I talked to the Missouri director (Saturday) morning, they were going on with limited fans. We’ve all been exchanging emails as things change in our states. We meet in the winter, the Midwest, Plains states. We had a legal meeting canceled, but we’re talking about mid-April to talk about, OK, how did you deal with this? We’ve been presented with a new challenge, but we’ll step up to it. We’ve got a great staff and supportive membership. We’ll try to make the right decision on behalf of the student-athletes and schools.”