HELENA -- Mark Beckman knew he was damned if he did, damned if he didn't.
The Montana High School Association's executive director, along with the rest of his staff and the MHSA board, were in a challenging position throughout the weekend, as eight basketball state tournaments were being hosted across Montana in four cities -- the Class AA tournaments in Bozeman, Class A tournaments in Billings, Class B tournaments in Butte and Class C tournaments in Missoula.
While other organizations were canceling sporting events across the country, the MHSA played on, while remaining in constant contact with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
But once presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 had been discovered in the Treasure State, the MHSA had no choice but to cancel the tournaments after conversations with the DPHHS, effective immediately following the final games on Friday evening.
MTN Sports sat down with Beckman on Sunday morning to discuss the decision, the timeline of events from before the tournaments began up until the final call, which was made Friday night.
MTN Sports: So I guess the first thing that everybody was discussing on Friday night was that final call. You send out an email with the release at 9 p.m., 9:01 p.m., whatever it was, but people are curious who made the final call? Was that the governor? Was that the health department? Was that Mark Beckman?
Mark Beckman: Sure. Well at 4:30 p.m. that afternoon we met with the state health department, and it was the director of the state health department and various employees of the agency and two of my board members, we were on a conference call, and as we went through and were going through the factors that we were considering through the health department and then through the MHSA in regard to continuing the tournaments, at that time, there were no confirmed cases. So we did have an announcement at all of our facilities that the tournaments were going to continue because we're at a very low threshold without having those confirmed cases. With that said, we continued on. Well then a little later in the evening, I received a text from the director of the health department saying, please call me. Which I did. And we found out that there were four confirmed cases. The thing that really, the factor that really came into the decision was that out of those four, three of them were in communities where we had tournaments. If they would have been isolated cases in areas such as a nursing home or at the veteran’s hospital for example, we could have looked at continuing. But when it's out in the community, that's when it moves up into the next threshold. And so, as I consulted with the board members that were with me, I had two at the tournament, called our board president, you know, and then I know at the other sites, my directors, our managers or those tournaments were actually, you know, in contact with the board members, we then had a plan saying, you know, all along that if we had no cases, we're going to continue. But when we had confirmed cases, we had to evaluate it. Where were they? How was that threshold being moved, you know, were we moving up in that threshold? With that said, then I had the recommendation, now we, you know, cancel the tournaments after that evening and go with co-champions and there was, from our board, support for that decision.
MTN Sports: Support for that, but also the non support for that. We'll go through a timeline, but what was the immediate reaction that you saw as soon as that press release was out, as soon as the news was going out? Twitter was pretty blowing up pretty heavily.
Beckman: Yeah it was and it was a different reaction at our different sites, you know, and that was all because of the, maybe the match-ups and the emotions involved with certain teams and maybe certain fan groups and all that, which I understand. So in the Class B, I can speak to that personally because that's where I was, we started the announcement, that was what we were doing, and there was, you know, a few boos, quite a few boos. But then all of a sudden when we announced the reasons why, of course, and where we were, why we got to that place and that there was going to be co-champions, there was a loud cheer and I really was impressed at the end of the game where the two teams, and I know you've seen that, where they came together and took you know, combined photographs and they were out there on the floor. So hopefully that co-champions, we got to the place where the two undefeated teams, there can be no question about that, the two best teams were left, and I know that they would love to play, but I think then in each facility the reaction was different according to how each team felt or each team's fan group felt.
MTN Sports: I think most of them were either finished, our Class C tournament was done when they made the announcement, I don't know that they made the announcement until afterwards in Bozeman or Butte. I think in Billings they still had a game to go because they were the late one, to where those kids are playing knowing that this was it, so maybe it was a little different mindset in that gym than it was in Bozeman with Billings West and Missoula Hellgate, where they didn't know until afterwards.
Beckman: And absolutely, that was a factor. So what I did was I asked Kip Ryan, who was our director in Missoula, he said, ‘We're getting close, we’re ahead of schedule here,’ because of the different schedule that they had in Class C. so I asked him to call me as soon as they were done because they were going to announce it, because there was some logistical things there in regard to refunds of our all-session passes that had to be announced. So as soon as that was ended, we knew that that would be out in social media, so that's when I sent the email to everybody else. That's why, we weren't trying to, you know, say, ‘OK, we better wait until the end of each one,’ because we knew people would be hearing it. They needed to hear it from, from me, from the source.
MTN Sports: Let's do the timeline then. Wednesday was the first day of State C boys, Monday, Tuesday, even over the weekend you guys had to have been doing some pretty serious homework of, should we even have these?
Beckman: We'll go all the way back to last week because, I stay in touch with all the directors, the executive directors of the high school associations here in our region, and for that matter across the country, so we knew what was going on in some of the areas where they have had, where their state tournaments were last week, especially in Washington. That's where we first started, you know, hearing about where they had cases and confirmed cases, and of course they had transmission issues, or identified issues where the transmission problem wasn't too deep at that time because they were in a nursing home. So they decided to continue with their tournaments and they had all these practices and strategies put in place, so we had all those ready to go. And so that's even a week ago when they were doing it. So then when we got into this weekend, into the tournament week, we're looking at all that, we’re examining all the ones that have had a meet or a tournament, and then we were looking at the ones talking to the state associations that were going to continue on as we were starting on Thursday or Wednesday. And so we were in contact with them.
MTN Sports: Then Wednesday we're playing in Missoula. The Big Sky Conference makes an announcement, the NAIA had made their announcement that, not just basketball tournaments, the teams are going to be flying into, but their bowling, they had the inaugural bowling championships. What changed then for you guys to see that something close, because those were the first ones that truly impacted Montana was the Big Sky Tournament's gone. But that's in Boise. But now the one that's supposed to be in Billings at one of the venues we're playing at is also gone.
Beckman: Right. Well, I can tell you that, as I said in a press release there or maybe a media interview, is that I looked closely at yes, the NBA, NAIA and NCAA, all of those entities canceled, and you look at that and it's understandable because they're bringing in teams from all over the country in areas that have, you know, high infection rates and transmission rates, that made absolute sense. So as I was looking at it in the Montana perspective, we had no cases at the time and of course we were in constant contact with the state health department saying where are we at, what's your recommendation in regard to this? And then when all of the strategies that we put out, and especially the Butte Health Department did a great job and with signage and all that stuff, they were like continue that path. That's a great path right now because we have no transmissions. So we were Montana kids playing Montana schools in Montana. We didn't have all those other factors that I think some of the other agencies had a look at and had to worry about.
MTN Sports: Anything change Thursday?
Beckman: Nope. Same. It was the same, you know, we were just rolling along. Things were going good and no confirmed cases.
MTN Sports: Then on Friday you guys send out the release because everybody kept asking, so it's much easier to just have a release saying again, we have no confirmed cases at this point in time. That was Friday afternoon. And then, of course, the unfortunate timing of it all is, what an hour or whatever it was later, Governor Bullock sends out that we now have four confirmed cases. How quickly from the time you sent out your release, did you see his release? And then have to start saying, okay, we need to re-evaluate things here.
Beckman: Actually, the first release I saw from the governor on Friday was that we still haven't had confirmed cases. So we were feeling pretty good about that. But then also, well, with all the things that are going into this, let's have a really good call with the state health department. That's when we had that call at 4:30 p.m.. And they of course were in contact with the governor's office and things hadn't changed at that time. So I didn't even see the second letter because we had that close of contact that the state health department director contacted me directly and told me about the four cases.
MTN Sports: I think you had said that even Governor Bullock had sent an email, right? Saying like, you know, we're still behind this., we support, you know, what, what was in that message?
Beckman: That message went to all the, I think a lot of the business leaders and all that that said, you know, don't panic, you know, here's where we're at, we don't have any confirmed cases, but continue to follow the CDC guidelines, making sure that people that are sick stay away from events, look at limiting, you know, large events. But also if you have them, then to have these mitigation practices in regard to safe hygiene. And of course we put in the fist bump and the elbow bump and all those kinds of things so that you can have these events, but it's up to you as the event coordinator. And so that was that particular memo. But then when the call came in from the health department director, it was like, ‘Oh, we have a different scenario here.’
MTN Sports: I hadn't thought about it but I saw a couple people brought it up of, yeah we were doing fist bumps or not even doing that maybe, but then people in the post, playing defense and front-side, back-side, whatever else. I mean either way it was going to be some contact going on in these tournaments. Was it more about the players on the floor or the people in the stands? Was it all of the above? Was the big concern of just everything that might be happening?
Beckman: It's a great question because it's all of the above. Without any cases then the transmission probability is low, so let's make sure that we keep it low by not having, you know, handshakes and all those kinds of things. And yes, you're going to have contact. So when they ask the question, which you were probably going to ask, is how come we cannot play without fans? One of the things that really concerned me was, if there are cases, we don't know how, if they were at a divisional tournament last week, if they were involved and we had a few of them last week, or if they are involved some way at the tournament or just watching the tournament where there was exposure and a possibility of transmission, then it can be kid-to-kid. That's why we had to be safe for everyone because there is, the fist bumps and elbow bump doesn't mean anything when they're in tough post play, that’s where something could happen. So that's why we made the decision to make sure that the kids were safe and that's why we didn't go with without a crowd.
MTN Sports: This will be a two-part question, but there was the opinion of, we should have never started these and then Friday after we make announcements, there's the opinion of, there's only a day left or now we have championships, can we just play the championship in the morning at 9 a.m. or whatever it might be. So two-part question to respond to the people that said we should have never started. And then the second part of that saying, there’s a day left, there's less than 12 hours left, the response to those people that were looking for that solution?
Beckman: Sure, and I believe the people that very strongly felt that we should never started were looking across the nation and seeing what was happening, and I hope my explanation about how those were agencies or entities that were bringing people in from all over, from infected areas and traveling teams in and on flights and all that, those kinds of things, would make sense to them that that's why we continued, because that wasn't our scenario. Our scenario was Montana kids playing Montana schools with Montana fans at that time, but then when that changed, so I hope that they understand that's where we were coming from, but when that changed where there could be a possibility, then I hope the ones that said, ‘Well you did great in keeping it Thursday and Friday,’ is that, then it's still going to kick in the health and safety. We got to the two undefeated teams. So at that time, I know it's not the best solution, but it was way better than me canceling on Friday at noon or Thursday night, where there would be all those questions that will never be answered. At least we got to the two best teams.
MTN Sports: Was there ever a thought of playing Saturday with no fans? Or once cases were confirmed in cities, that's that?
Beckman: Yeah, we looked at all those options. In fact, playing without fans or playing with limited fans, but after talking to many of the directors across the country that experienced that, for example, New Mexico's director, I was her mentor when she came in as an executive director. They have a huge basketball state tournament. I mean, they might have one of the biggest in the country. And so they were playing without fans, and she said it was very difficult and even the kids were saying, ‘This just isn’t a state tournament.’ So that was sort of a factor there. And then when you try to limit fans say, well, so many per school or so many per family, how would you do that? I mean maybe beforehand and you could say, ‘Here's so many tickets,’ if we were going to do that beforehand. But at that time, that late in the tournament, I don't think that was a possibility either. And also again, we're worried about transmission. If it’s out there, were any of those kids ever exposed with their family exposed and then if are we exposing each other on the floor?
MTN Sports: This is a hindsight's 20-20 question, but now knowing what we do, is there anything we would have done different?
Beckman: There isn't in my mind. I mean, I think we were well prepared going back even a week before, monitoring the Washington and Idaho situations, going through and having a plan in place, being in constant contact with the health department, going through and having four cases, but three in communities where we're at. I believe we made the best decision.
MTN Sports: This isn't a solution that you wanted, it's not a solution Brian Michelotti or Kip Ryan or Scott Wilson or Amy Bartels, nobody in this office wanted to cut a tournament short. None of the coaches, none of the fans, whatever else, nobody wanted, I mean, you guys are just as disappointed as you know, anybody else that's out there.
Beckman: Absolutely. And as a former varsity basketball coach for a long time and an administrator, knowing that I was very fortunate in one year to play in the state championship, we didn't win it, and would you go back and say, ‘Gosh, you know, maybe if we were co-champions that would (help).’ No, I understand that. I do. I mean, if we had the chance to play, if there was a chance to play and there wasn't the health and safety people, then absolutely want them to do it. But in this case, you have to look at those other factors, you know, because you could say, ‘Well come on in early. Let's go ahead and continue to play.’ And then what if somebody says, ‘Well, you know what, we have more cases now. We know that they were tied to the teams we brought in the morning.’ I would feel even worse than co-champions.
MTN Sports: One thing that I feel like we've cleared up plenty of times, but I know I saw it at least three times, was something about the MHSA wanted to get their money from the three days. You guys didn't make a single dime over the weekend.
Beckman: Well, and I hadn't seen that yet, so absolutely. I hope people understand that MHSA does not receive any postseason monies. Zero. All that monies goes back to the schools, that goes back for them through a formula to help pay for their travel to and from. And if there's any profit from each of those, it's divided amongst all the schools in that classification. That helps fund their activity programs across the board, but also helps them get to and from tournaments. We take no money from those tournaments.
MTN Sports: Have you ever seen anything like this? Anywhere?
Beckman: Never. And uh, you know, I've, we've had some Measles outbreaks and some pertussis and some health issues before, and we actually had, back in the 1980s, they had a ballgame that was played without fans. I don't know if anybody knows this, but it was in Bozeman and it was Bozeman and Butte High School, and Brian Michelotti happened to be, our MHSA associate director, playing in the JV game then, and he said it was absolutely terrible. However, cooler heads prevailed because they were worried about an outbreak. But again, it's a different, because there was vaccinations and they could get kids vaccinated, so it's a whole different story than that. But that's the only time. So we've been through a few, but very minor compared to this particular outbreak.
MTN Sports: And then the big question now is, this interview is taking place on Sunday, Monday is supposed to be the start of spring sports practices and we'd be looking at tennis and golfs and track and fields and softballs and all of the above. Do we know anything at this point in time?
Beckman: Well actually, spring sport practices started last Monday.
MTN Sports: Well that's true, yeah, for teams that weren't playing at state.
Beckman: So now we move into the second week, which means we can have contests toward the end of the week. The weather hasn't been very cooperative with us on that, and that might be a blessing, really. But also, it usually isn't very cooperative at this time of the year. So what we're going to do is, I'm reaching out to our board to see if we can get a quorum of our board tomorrow for a conference call to look at some options in regard to spring sports. There are different options out there. Wyoming, for example, is going to allow schools, if they stay in session, to have practices, if the school allows. North Dakota, for example, has canceled all spring practices and spring contests until the end of the month to see where they're at. Again, in Wyoming you could practice, but they won't have contests now until the end of the month. So there's a few options out there. There may be some other options that the board, any of our board members may suggest, and we'll go through those, discuss those. And once we do that, I'll send out an immediate press release, send it to the schools and then to the press on what the status of spring sports are in Montana.
MTN Sports: Could it be up to the schools individually to decide if they want to do something like that?
Beckman: It depends on what the board, the board will make the decision. They may put up a piece of that saying, ‘If you want to continue.’ Of course, then you look at, what if the boys track doesn't and the girls track does, and you have all those kinds of things. So the board will make sure they look at all those factors.
MTN Sports: The other question I guess is, or the question that I have was, how much is OPI also probably looking at all this because we're seeing across the country total school closures completely. I'm assuming that they're having similar conversations as you guys were and that would trump anything that athletics play into.
Beckman: Absolutely. And OPI had a conference call with all the superintendents in the state on Friday morning, and I know that because a couple of my board members who were at the State B tournament are superintendents, and many of the superintendents at that tournament went into that conference call, they took it at the Butte Civic Center. At that time, there was no recommendation, there wasn't a recommendation from OPI to close schools. They were still following the CDC guidelines, which I still believe that they're saying to stay open unless you get to a certain threshold, too. So they're on top of it. They're working closely with the department of health. And so we'll see what their guidance or recommendations or requirements are. And of course, that'll affect us.
MTN Sports: Anything else? We were talking that we could see in five or 10 years the reunion games from some of these championships. I think some of them may have already been played for all we know on the drive home. You know, Fairview and Scobey were adamant about going at it a fourth time or whatever.
Beckman: Those things happen and that'd be great for those communities and teams for sure. But you know, again, I hope that people will look at in a few years down the road that, this was not a good situation by any means, but these kids and their parents and all of us included, are part of MHSA history. It's not the thing we wanted, it's not that great historical deal, but it is a part of history where they can, it's a unique situation that they can talk about. And then as you say, maybe down the road, they come back and do a reunion game or something. But we hope that because of what we've done, that the two best teams were recognized and that we don't ever have to do this again.
MTN Sports: Should there have been anything recognized on the consolation side? I did see people talking about, ‘What about third? Ties for third?’
Beckman: Well that's what's difficult too is that they want to say, well, let's bring the champion back and only play them, and then you have these kids that are there and trying to work, because hardware, state tournaments, earning hardware is a big deal. So then you still had two more games in each gender and then two more games before you even hit the championships. So it'd be difficult to say, you know, ‘Who's third who really should have been? ‘And they can go back and say, ‘Well, we beat them before, we saw them in the regular season.’ So we're just going to go with co-champions and no other, and then that's the other factor why we didn't say, well let's continue on with just the championships because that would have been difficult for those kids too.