In the parlance of our industry, CIF Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod buried the lead. (Or, as we in newspapering spell it, lede. Don’t ask me why. It’s tradition.)
On August 2, Wigod’s first “Commissioner’s Message” of the school year to administrators, coaches and media discussed finances (a waiving of schools’ sport fees for the coming school year), technology, a vote about adding girls flag football as a sport, an upcoming championship football game at the Rose Bowl, beach volleyball championships in the spring, and emphasis on fan behavior issues and a continuing officiating shortage.
And at the very end he dropped this in: After his 12th year as commissioner and nearly four decades in education, he will retire next Aug. 1.
“When I first took over as commissioner, I just internally kind of told myself, ‘Wow, if I was able to do this for 10 years, that would really be something special,’ ” Wigod said at the top of our annual August conversation this past week.
“My (ninth) year was the 2019-2020 school year, so we got off to a pretty good start and then it got pretty dicey. And so at that point I just said, ‘Well, all plans for any kind of retirement are going to go off the board now. I’m going to focus on getting us through this and re-establishing everything.’ “
It has been a slog, but Wigod, his staff and the individual schools’ administrators and coaches got through it, with a truncated ’20-21 sports season and something closer to normal in ’21-22.
Closer, but not all the way back. The CIF state office published participation numbers this week suggesting that while the overall ’21-22 numbers declined – down by 7.6 percent since ’19-20, with a total of 763,606 participants statewide this past school year – there’s optimism that those numbers will rise this academic year and beyond.
The Southern Section transfer numbers, disseminated in early August, revealed another pattern that could be concerning. The total number of transfers in ’21-22, 6,117, was down from the 6,523 of ’19-20. But nearly half of the transfers last school year, 3,003, were non-participants in sports. Under more normal circumstances, Wigod said, that percentage is around 15 to 20 percent.
“I think you have to go back a little bit further than the most recent (numbers) because we all know what we dealt with and how it affected so many things,” Wigod said. “I think there’s optimism (of a trend upward) because we lost a lot of students through the shutdown and through the pandemic.
“You talk with our schools and they will tell you there are just students that didn’t come back. They found other things to get involved in when they weren’t allowed to be part of high school sports … The pandemic changed a lot. It changed thought processes. It changed a lot of the way things have been done that always got taken for granted. … People had, I think, taken high school sports for granted: ‘It’s there every year.’ And then when it was gone they realized how much they missed it and how important it was. So I think that affected our students.”
The impact has been felt at a number of levels. Some athletes might have shifted their attention to club teams, and others may have dropped away from comprehensive high schools altogether in favor of homeschooling. A crisis in hiring and retaining officials in all sports continues. And Wigod said an athletic director in the Inland Empire told him a lot of coaches had dropped away through the pandemic as well.
“A lot of folks just decided, ‘Hey, I can get along without doing this anymore,” he said. “Or it just reprioritized where they are. So I think we have to take that into consideration and look at this last year we finished, where I think we were able to restore some confidence that everything was able to get done even through a pandemic.
“I think this year we hope to build on that momentum and continue to move forward away from the terrible times and challenging times. And I’d like to think there is optimism that (the) numbers will come back.”
Normalcy is getting closer. Anecdotal evidence suggests football and other fall sports numbers have increased, for seasons that started this weekend with girls volleyball and will begin for football with next weekend’s Week Zero.
“You know, we still have parents and students who have said, ‘I don’t want to go back to the comprehensive high school. I got a taste of what it was like to be educated off a campus, and I would like to stay in that environment,’” Wigod said.
He said he doesn’t begrudge those decisions that parents or students make, but he remains convinced that on-campus education provides benefits that go beyond what a student might learn in the classroom or on the field or court.
“The socialization and mental health, and the ability to interact with peers and learn and really experience what life is each day, dealing with different people and having to work together,” he said. “That’s what I love so much about high school sports, is how it teaches that concept so strongly about being a team and working together and setting aside whatever you might bring to the table.”
Learning to work with, and get along with, people of different backgrounds and beliefs may be the most important skill our schools can teach. And, as Wigod noted, school athletic programs provide a service that club and travel teams can’t.
“The high school experience is really the only one that’s free of charge,” he said, echoing the message of CIF state commissioner Ron Nocetti. “Facilities at the high school are free of charge. Tennis courts on the high school campus are not in a club. They’re not in a private facility. They’re not somewhere you have to pay money to use.
“We should never lose sight that we are the bastion for that opportunity, those opportunities for students without having to pay exorbitant amounts of money for a club or travel experience.”
With that, Wigod’s final school year as commissioner begins, but there will be no victory lap. “I want to just build on that momentum this coming year and really, you know, continue that effort to keep everything moving forward,” he said.
But after guiding this sometimes fractious association of some 580 schools and their athletic programs through a global pandemic and back to some semblance of normalcy, isn’t it obvious? He’s earned one.
More from my conversation with Rob Wigod on the web, at www.ocregister.com/sports.