Right before Butte Central’s boys’ basketball team played Browning in the semifinals of the Class A State tournament this past March, a Yellowstone County commissioner took to center court to welcome fans to Billings.
The commissioner then pulled out his cellphone to make a live Facebook video. He held the phone up and spun around to show the entire crowd, proclaiming to the world that we were healthy and playing basketball in Montana.
He did it in a mocking manor that showed he did not believe this approaching coronavirus was something anybody should take seriously.
Basically, he was claiming victory over a pandemic before it ever really started.
He was also bringing unnecessary attention to the tournaments in Montana, which were among the last to shut down because of the virus. At the time, players, fans and tournament officials were walking on eggshells, hoping to squeeze all the games in as every other sport was shutting down.
At the time this commissioner was mocking the virus, Montana was learning that the coronavirus had, in fact, reached the state. The first four cases of COVID-19 were reported in Montana that night, and state officials were making the hard decision.
Less than 4 hours after the commissioner’s sarcastic video, the games stopped.
If the commissioner did not look really dumb at the time of his video, he sure did when the championship games were called off later that night.
The commissioner also served as a perfect example as to why the return to high school sports in Montana is set up to fail in a big way if we really leave fan attendance up to each individual county.
Do you really want to leave the health of your son and daughter — and your entire family, for that matter — up to a commissioner like that?
Last week the Montana High School Association announced that fall sports in the state will be played as scheduled. How many people will be allowed to watch each sporting event will be up to the local health authorities of each county.
If you look around to see how some counties are treating the virus, that is truly terrifying.
Not only are Montana’s 56 counties not on the same page, they are not even reading from the same book.
Take this week’s Class AA State American Legion baseball tournament for example.
Officials in Helena decided that it was not safe to play the tournament in a pandemic. So, the tournament was moved to Billings, where commissioners are not afraid of the coronavirus.
Yellowstone County also just so happens to be the place that has by far the most coronavirus cases in the state, and that is probably not a coincidence.
How is it possible that is unsafe to play in Helena, yet perfectly OK to play 3 hours away in Billings? Clearly, either Lewis and Clark County or Yellowstone County is wrong in this case.
Is Billings not strict enough? Is Helena too strict. Will the Capital City high school teams have to play every game on the road this season?
As of Monday, Yellowstone County had 1,110 total cases of the coronavirus. Lewis and Clark County showed 135, so the smart money is on Lewis and Clark County being right.
The low number in Helena, where last month they made a last-minute cancelation of an 86-team softball tournament, might not solely be because of the conservative game plan. But that number is impossible to ignore.
You did not have to look too hard at this summer’s American Legion baseball season to see how differently counties treated games. Fans from some cities came to Butte and acted as if there was no pandemic at all. Some literally came to town and scoffed at the mask order in the 3 Legend Stadium grandstands.
Do you feel safe sending your players to their communities?
We could do everything right here, only to have our spot blown up by a trip over there.
It is not hard to envision a scenario where Butte High football games will have a strict limit of fans in their home games, and then the Bulldogs could go play before a packed house in Kalispell.
In addition to being an unfair advantage to certain teams, it will blow all the safeguards put into place by the stricter counties.
Granted, Butte and Southwest Montana have not exactly been a model of consistency during the pandemic. We could do a whole lot better.
While the Legion and Little Leagues had to walk tightropes to play, others partied like the Great Gatsby at country club gatherings and weddings, and that eventually spread the virus.
While the dunk booth at the Shrine Game cornhole tournament was halted for safety reasons, Delmoe Lake and Canyon Ferry Reservoir have been treated as if they are pandemic sanctuaries.
Butte-Silver Bow has been one of the more conservative governments when dealing with the pandemic. The county stepped up and canceled St. Patrick’s Day activities, likely slowing the spread of the virus in the early days.
The county also took action to shut down businesses even before Gov. Steve Bullock issued the first of his statewide orders.
But even if Butte — or any city or county in the state — did things perfectly, we cannot protect all the players and their families because they are not playing in a so-called bubble.
Major League Baseball cannot even come close to controlling the coronavirus while playing games without fans, and baseball is a multi-billion-dollar industry. They test the players and staff daily.
In Montana, those who do get tested do not get their results for more than a week, rendering the tests basically useless in terms of prevention. We have not devoted the money or resources to correctly test our “essential employees,” let alone our athletes.
So, even if we did not allow any fans into sporting events, we will be extremely lucky to fit in the entire fall season.
It seems next to impossible if these counties and their differing opinions on the coronavirus have control over the attendance.
The MHSA wants to the student-athletes to play for the right reasons. We all do.
High school football is woven deeply into the fabric of our society, but the reasons for a return are bigger than that.
This is not about the fans. It is about the players.
Missing out on playing sports would be devastating to so many students.
For some, it could mean taking away a chance to go to college. For others, it would strip away the main reason they stay in school in the first place.
For many more, it would mean stripping away some of the best memories of high school.
Now would be the time for some statewide leadership — or even, fingers crossed, national leadership — to step up and get us all in the same book and on the right page when it comes to fighting this deadly virus.
Otherwise, last week’s announcement that we will start the fall season will eventually look as silly as the Yellowstone County commissioner’s declaration of victory in March.
— Bill Foley, who is no stranger to looking silly, writes a column that usually appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. He is writing more frequently during the coronavirus lockdown. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.