The last week has been a whirlwind, though it’s what I was expecting going into the new year – why wouldn’t we start 2021 off on a wobbly foot? There was a lot of news coming through of the West Virginia sports pipeline, but among all the stories one stood out: The New Year’s Eve Gala at The Greenbrier.
I’ve wanted to give it time before speaking to this, because this isn’t a black and white issue, though those on both sides seem to make it so.
First, obviously, we should start with the optics. That being, obviously, they don’t look great. A large room of people, most without masks in the video, partying in the middle of an ongoing pandemic. Maybe some of those folks have received the COVID-19 vaccine, though even if I had personally taken the shot in the arm, I’d not be going mask-less in that kind of situation. That’s just one side of the optics. The other is this comes days after Gov. Jim Justice announced winter sports in the state were pushed back to March 1. This came with an understandable and collective “why?” among players, parents and sportswriters, a date seemingly pulled out of nowhere when we were supposed to re-evaluate the situation next Monday. Not to mention this will affect spring sports and that it doesn’t make sense to hold basketball games and wrestling matches that late in the year. What about the multisport athletes, too? At the very least, holding winter and spring contests at the same time seems like an athletic director’s nightmare.
Still, this doesn’t touch on why everyone is so mad. The governor, who ultimately makes these calls, owns The Greenbrier. A lot of us know this, and bets are if you’re reading this you’re one of the angry people who’s been following this from the beginning like me, but I just have to lay that out for us to read in print. Truly, this came as a shock to me when I first saw the video. Why would the resort allow people to walk around without masks? Why would they let all of those people in one room? What’s going on down in White Sulphur Springs? Clearly, the county health department thought the same, which is why they’re investigating the place. So that’s it, that’s the basis of why people are mad: The guy who called off winter sports for another two months over health concerns owns the resort where video surfaced of a New Year’s Eve party showing folks ignoring health guidelines.
At the heart of this, it’s messed up and the business needs to face the consequences. But as I stated above, this is more than a black and white issue and I want to look at this from an objective standpoint. Trust me, I’m irritated about the situation, too. Part of my job depends on functioning sports. Further, high school sports are my favorite because most student-athletes have dreams of playing ball in college, the stories are so much better and the kids are fun to write about. Not to mention the rivalries, the blunders, the learning moments and the occasional parent getting tossed for being too heated at a referee.
So, let me pause here and tell you about my time at The Greenbrier two months ago. My girlfriend and I went for her mandatory continued education courses – she’s a veterinarian – and naturally, I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to go to the place. I’d never be able to afford a trip there, so with it being mostly paid for with CE funds, I readily obliged. From pulling into the front to leaving a few days later, I was not displeased with the resort’s COVID-19 prevention guidelines. Every staff member wore masks, folks who had their masks off when not dining or drinking were reminded to keep them on and there were, from what I witnessed, strict cleaning protocols. The front desk provided folks with masks if they didn’t have them, and before we could even enter the gate, our temperature was taken. Now, there’s a lot we don’t know about this virus – how you can be infected but not show symptoms for a period of time is the scariest one for me – but there are things we’ve learned to do to make events as safe as possible.
Next, I want to separate Justice from this. I’ll come back to him in a second, but I want to talk about the economic side of the pandemic. The resort, being as massive as it is, is one of the largest employers in our state. Outside of the government, West Virginia University and Marshall University, The Greenbrier offers more than 1,500 jobs. We’re now at a point in this pandemic where we’ve learned we can’t keep businesses shut down. If they follow the rules, they can operate. It’s as simple as that. So why should a business that’s been following the rules not go along with their plans for a New Year’s Eve celebration? I ask that as the Devil’s Advocate. If I were the owner of the resort I would have closed the business that night, but, still, the point stands that if they’ve been following the rules why not continue?
More could have been done. I laid them out above: Don’t allow that many people in one room – there are plenty of large ballrooms – and make sure you’re keeping up with people who aren’t wearing their masks when not eating or drinking. Further, the argument has been made that, why can a bar or restaurant remain open but we can’t play sports? Fair question, but it’s because you don’t get paid to play high school sports. Most high school contests don’t yield positive cash flow, and, the people who do get paid to operate the ticket desk or concessions have full-time jobs elsewhere. Does the lack of money hurt athletic departments? Yes, but the state just awarded schools money based on enrollment to offset losses.
OK, with that out of the way, time to return to Justice. His dodging questions was a load of crap. Finally, though, he answered. He called it a political hit job – oh, please – but also noted he wasn’t there and if it turns out his business actually broke protocol then he’d be on them like stink on shit (though he didn’t say that last word). And if he truly wasn’t there, that doesn’t exclude him from the consequences that may come of this. But there is some separation here. Justice is working in two fields here: Leading our state and leading his resort. On one side, he’s doing what he believes is necessary based on information he’s been given by health officials. Truly, he’s done one of the better jobs of handling this health crisis by listening to the likes of Dr. Clay Marsh and other advisors. On the other side, he’s responsible for what his business does, no matter if he isn’t there to supervise. He can’t please everyone. Further, that video is damning, no doubt about it, but what would the larger picture show? We get so attached to using one small bite of information that we take it as the full story. Was there someone walking around telling people to put their masks on or they had to leave? Who knows. That’s what the health department investigation will tell us.
To wrap this up I have three small points to make. First, this virus is still killing people. We need to keep that in mind as we move forward. Maybe the right call was to push back sports to March, even though states around us are beginning to play. Maybe those states will have to call things off midseason or earlier because of outbreaks. The combination of winter and flu season with COVID-19 is a scary trifecta. I hope this situation makes Justice and Co. re-evaluate the winter sports situation, but the fact remains we need to be safe about this. We also don’t have testing capabilities for our high school athletes like universities do. Second, if you want to enact real change and get under the skin of officials, don’t use social media. You can create outrage, sure, but it gets tucked beneath videos of President Trump or a cute animal. If you want change, then go protest at the capitol building; at The Greenbrier. Get away from your screen and make a true statement. Then, you get the attention of the media cameras as opposed to a couple of retweets from reporters. At the very least, make phone calls – they actually work sometimes.
We can be mad about what happened at The Greenbrier. We should be mad about what happened there. But when it comes to high school sports, we need to take much more into consideration.