The 2020-21 school year was one that will always be remembered for uncertainty and confusion. The COVID-19 pandemic not only closed schools, it also pushed the high school sports seasons to the brink, and for months it looked like football and many other sports wouldn’t happen.
One of the things that turned the tide in pushing the California Department of Public Health to revise its guidelines and allow sports to start up was a grassroots protest movement. A number of local groups gathered under the larger banner of “Let Them Play California,” and held protests at different CIF and government offices across the state. Coupled with strong organization from a group of high school football coaches, the public displays happened shortly before the CDPH ended up making the change.
What was interesting about the protests was that most of them were staged in front of buildings filled with people who agreed with them. Certainly that was the case for all of the CIF offices, including the local Southern Section office. CIF-SS commissioner Rob Wigod, a Wilson alum and former Wilson and Lakewood coach, said in a recent interview that he actually attended the protest of his own office.
“They didn’t know that I was there, but there was a Let Them Play demonstration at our office, and I was there,” he said. “When they finished, they laid their signs down on our doorstop. They were handmade, talking about what students needed and let them play. I picked up every one of those signs, and I brought them in our office and I put them in our big room and laid them out on the table. That was on January 29, and those signs have been in our office since then. I just, you know, I respected them. I appreciated them, they were saying what we were saying.”
Wigod recalls that the day was dark, cloudy, and rainy, a fitting scene for the state of high school sports in the state in late January.
“I didn’t know that there was a path on that day,” said Wigod. “On that day I really didn’t know that there was a path forward, and it resonated with me that it meant so much to them.”
Soon after, the Let Them Play movement realized that they had a friend in the CIF, and in coaches, and in many school administrators. It was after that that their protests found one voice, and began to lobby the CDPH–ultimately succeeding.
Prior to that, Wigod and the CIF-SS were fielding criticisms from Let Them Play and other groups for not letting high school sports resume–a decision that wasn’t there’s to make.
“We were being honest, we were saying there was a day that we would have to say, ‘We have to give up, the time has run out,’ and that day hadn’t come,” said Wigod. “We didn’t want to jump the gun and cancel, and then have the guidelines change afterwards.”
Many section offices did exactly that, which is why many Northern California sections didn’t have playoffs or championships for sports like basketball or volleyball, meaning that the CIF State playoffs later in the school year ended with Southern California Regional championship games instead of state championship games.
CIF-SS athletes, including all the high school athletes in Long Beach, were the beneficiaries of Wigod’s faith, optimism, and the strength he gained in part from watching the protest outside his office, a reminder that parents and athletes cared about high school sports as much as he did.
“Thankfully before we really had to start canceling entire seasons, the guidelines changed and we were able to implement the full calendar and go to work,” he said. “I didn’t want the student-athletes to give up hope in January. I didn’t want anybody to think that we were done.”