Season in limbo
Health Departments recommend against hosting wrestling
Western New York Health Department leaders from five counties have recommended that interscholastic, intramural and amateur wrestling teams and leagues cancel or postpone their winter seasons to a later date, when community transmission of COVID-19 is significantly lower.
The leaders of the county Health Departments — Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara — announced this recommendation one day after giving the approval for other high-risk winter sports to continue.
“This is so unfair to kids on so many levels. To put these kids on the roller coaster ride they have been put on is ridiculous,” Drew Wilcox, Falconer/Cassadaga Valley wrestling coach, said Wednesday evening. “To push the season back multiple times and then come out and say they can wrestle, but pull your word back less than 24 hours later … is so unfair to our kids.
“For the last 11 months, we have listened to anyone and anybody, but have never asked kids what they think or what they feel,” Wilcox continued. “Walking through the halls of Falconer, it’s obvious how much it’s changed our kids. The people making these decisions don’t work in education. They don’t know how negative an effect taking sports and extra-curricular activities away is having. … The smiles and excitement our team showed when they were told they could wrestle again was amazing.”
Department officials noted wrestling involves participants sparring in very close physical proximity for extended periods of time, which significantly increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Similarly, masks, which are a method of COVID-19 risk reduction, are not recommended to be worn during wrestling because of a choking hazard.
“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster. I was shocked that we were actually moving in this direction anyways,” Fredonia/Silver Creek head coach Joe Santilli said Wednesday. “Considering the circumstances in the area were far worse than they were in October and November, I struggled to create a rationale as to why it was a good idea now. … The student-athletes, it’s good for them for sure and I would want it for them, but with all the needs for mitigation and safety, how do you do it?”
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published this week summarized a large COVID outbreak associated with a wrestling tournament in December. Through a case investigation that spanned three counties and included diagnostic testing of contacts, the report noted hundreds of contacts, significant losses of in-person learning days, suspension of all winter indoor and outdoor high school athletics in one county, and one death resulting from multiple exposures during this wrestling tournament.
“I was excited for the kids because they got word that it was a go,” Santilli said. “But I like to reserve or curb my enthusiasm for certain things. I’m a bit of a skeptic or a cynical optimist. I prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
The Health Departments said that circumstances outlined in that brief could easily be replicated at any Western New York wrestling tournament. Department officials said that coaching staffs and parents should consider promoting individual training and distanced group exercises.
On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office gave its approval to high-risk sports across the state as long as local Health Departments gave their approval. The New York State Public High School Athletic Association expressed optimism with the governor’s decision during a Zoom call that evening as early indications from local Health Departments were that they would allow all sports beginning Feb. 1.
Across the border in Pennsylvania, winter seasons — including wrestling — were delayed a few weeks at the start, but have since resumed. Different schools and programs have had to pause for days or weeks, but schedules have been altered to accommodate those teams when they are able to participate again.
“I was extremely happy for kids in Pennsylvania to be able to have a season and I was hopeful we would follow suit with that,” Wilcox said. ” … I think Pennsylvania is putting kids first right now. I personally believe that is what should be happening in New York state.”
There is a possibility that if Section VI does follow the Health Departments’ recommendations and postpones wrestling season, it could move to the Fall II or Spring season, but then student-athletes may have to choose one sport over another.
“I guess if it was in May, we’re going to be ready to wrestling and we’ll make the best of it,” Wilcox said, “but that puts kids in a tough situation.”
“Competing with spring sports … those sports took a hit last spring so I don’t know if it’s equitable,” Santilli said. “We got our state championships last year. … I have some talent returning … but as a coach we try to create context and perspective on what’s important. They’re aware that it’s not the end of the world, it’s just part of their life.”
Wrestling has long been considered a high-risk sport along the lines of hockey and basketball in the winter season.
“We understand the risk associated with COVID-19 and wrestling, but wrestling is a one-on-one thing,” Wilcox said. “If someone has COVID, only one kid is getting exposed. On the basketball floor, every kid on both teams is now exposed. I don’t understand how that is more of a risk.”
Regardless, student-athletes and coaches may know their fate as soon as this morning when Section VI’s Executive Committee meets again with county leaders.
“Wrestlers are resilient and they persevere,” Santilli said. “We get knocked down. We find a way to right ourselves and move forward a little bit better for it.”