Football fans from out of town were not impressed with the Butte-Silver Bow Health Department early this season.
The department ruled that some fans could attend high school sporting events, but no fans from out of town would not be let in. Those rules were later relaxed to allow some fans in from both sides.
Many other local governments enforced similar rules, and disgruntled fans watched football games through fences from outside stadiums around the state.
Butte Central plays its home games at Montana Tech’s Bob Green Field, and the campus was closed. So, fans were not allowed to watch from the other side of the fence.
As you can imagine, this did not sit well with the fans for the opposing teams, and it is hard to blame them. Moms and dads want to watch their sons and daughters play sports.
We did, however, see many fans place their desire to watch the games over the safety of those playing them. Selfishly and recklessly, they threatened lawsuits and pounded their chests on social media.
They quickly went from “all we want is for them to be able to play” to “we demand to watch them play.”
Before one Butte Central football game, some angry-and-determined fans threatened to come to town and ignore the Health Department rules. They were ready to video their expected run ins with law enforcement, and some were expecting to be arrested.
A video of moms and dads getting cuffed and stuffed into a squad car for the crime of trying to watch their son play football would definitely go viral. The arrested parents would be heroes among the faction of the public that incorrectly thinks the coronavirus is nothing more than the flu.
The potentially viral incident, though, was defused with one word: Forfeit.
Instead of arresting these fans, authorities simply told them that if they did not respect the rules of the Health Department, their boys would be forced to forfeit the game.
Butte Central would have been awarded the win, and the visiting team would have suffered a loss that could have potentially damaged its playoff chances.
No parent or fan wants to be responsible for making the team take an ‘L.’ Nobody wants to be Steve Bartman.
So, the fans from out of town dropped their protest. They instead went to a local sports bar and watched the game on a streaming service.
Of course, it would have been safer for everyone if the fans would have just been allowed to watch the games in the safety of the spacious outdoor stadium, but that maddening inconsistency is a topic for another day.
When given the option to comply or forfeit, fans and parents will choose the former every day of the week.
That incident is something to keep in mind as we head into playing winter sports during a pandemic. This winter will pose a serious threat to the leadership, or lack thereof, that has been guiding us.
Since the coronavirus gripped the country in March, we have suffered from a sever leadership vacuum at every level in and out of the sporting world.
The leaders at the top just kick the decisions down the road or down to lower jurisdictions.
In a time when we have turned something as simple as wearing a mask to protect others into a political statement, that has become very, very dangerous.
The pandemic is currently exploding around the state. On Saturday alone, Montana reported a record 1,660 new COVID-19 cases. As of Monday, the virus has killed 520 Montanans.
Sure, none of those people dropped dead while attending a high school football game or volleyball match. But there is a real likelihood that at least some of them died because someone else went to a prep sporting event.
Now that the highly-contagious virus is so prevalent and we are entering the cold and flu season, we need to seriously rethink the policy that allows each county to set the rules for high school sporting events.
More than ever, we need some real leadership to step up.
While it probably is not a great idea to play any sports until a vaccine is a reality, we need some uniform rules set if the sports do, as expected, go on.
In the fall, the Montana High School Association left the rules up to each county. At the time, that did not seem like a bad idea. In hindsight, it was a disaster.
All you had to do was watch some Twitter videos of games around the state to see how flawed this approach was. While some counties took the pandemic seriously and enforced strict standards at games, others openly mocked the rules.
Since high school competition involves teams crossing county lines during a deadly pandemic, the inaction of some local officials poses a real danger to the entire state.
We will never be able to force every county to follow the governor’s mask mandate, and the next governor might overturn the order anyway.
All you have to do is stop at a gas station anywhere other than Butte, Missoula and maybe a few other places to see that the mandate is largely ignored. People wearing masks inside a convenience store in Billings or Belgrade will get stared at like they just got caught drinking out of the toilet.
Wear a mask to a football game in some of the smaller counties with big crowds, and you will get treated like you just tried to serve picante sauce made in New York City.
Fans at football games will not listen to the governor. They might not even listen to the police. Many are willing to be arrested as they stand up for their right to infect others with a deadly virus.
But as the incident in Butte early this fall shows, they will listen to the word “forfeit.”
They will heed the words of the MHSA because that organization can put some teeth behind that word.
Playing sports this winter could be a dangerous prospect, and we have to make sure some serious precautions are in place before we compete.
We cannot leave it up to each individual county to decide if or how many fans will be allowed into games. We can not leave it up to each individual county to decide if they will make sure fans wear masks.
It was unfair to subject our student-athletes to that kind of reckless disregard to public safety in the fall. It will be criminal if we do it again in the winter.
Whether it is two fans, one fan or no fans per athlete, that should be set and enforced by the MHSA because that organization is the only one with ability to force a forfeit.
If a school is not making sure fans are wearing masks and keeping a safe distance, then the MHSA should drop the “F bomb.”
Oh, the fans will not like it. They will threaten lawsuits. They will label those tasked with enforcing the rules as Nazis. They will go back to pounding their chests on social media.
In the end, they will follow the rules because they do not want to be the reason their team loses.
— Bill Foley, who knows what it is like to be the reason his team loses, writes a column that usually appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74 3 comments