EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part III in a Solutions Journalism series that examines how state officials go about organizing high school sports amid COVID-19, and the impact without extra-curricular activities on those involved. Part I was published on Aug. 7. Part II was about combatting anxiety without extra-curricular activities published on Aug. 15.
Doug Ute has one of the most interesting jobs in the state, he's commissioner of the Ohio High School Athletic Association amid a global pandemic.
Ute knows every angle of the Ohio high school sports scene, athlete, coach, administrator, and he learned the beginning stages of all of them from his experiences in north central Ohio.
The 1980 Clear Fork graduate was a superb high school basketball player who went on to a hoops career at Ashland University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing.
"I look back on what shaped me, and the number one thing was my mother, but then it was the teachers, coaches and my peers at Clear Fork High School who were all a big part of my life," Ute told Richland Source in an exclusive hour-long interview.
In 1988, Ute began his professional career as a basketball coach at Sarahsville Shenandoah before taking over at Buckeye Central. Once there he led the Bucks to a boys district basketball championship while serving as a teacher, coach and athletic administrator in the early 1990s.
Ute moved to Marion Elgin in 1996 as principal and eventually became superintendent. In 2009, he took over as superintendent at Newark. He retired from that post last spring and came aboard in September as the new executive director at the OHSAA.
"One of the things we wanted to do was make it possible for every athlete to compete for a state title in every sport," Ute said. "A lot of times we didn't play in the venues we've played in before. We couldn't have the crowds we've had before. But I never had anyone say anything to me about that.
"We were able to have a state title in every sport in the fall. I think that's absolutely a success."
Ute said approximately 345,000 athletes participate in high school sports in Ohio. Yet to date, the OHSAA has no knowledge of a COVID hospitalization nor a death traced to the virus being spread through high school sports.
"That's a credit to our schools and administrators and the work they've done to allow our kids to compete," Ute said.
Competing at all was very much in question just a few short months ago. Amid safey concerns over COVID-19, the OHSAA wiped out winter sports in 2020 just before the boys and girls state basketball and state swimming and wrestling championships could take place. Spring sports were canceled completely.
"I was still at Newark, and we had a girls basketball team that had just won the regional, and then their season was done," Ute said. "They had a real shot to win a state championship. That was devastating to those girls."
Still, as a superintendent at the time, Ute obviously understood the rationale.
Meanwhile, Jerry Snodgrass, who had served as the OHSAA's executive director since May 2018, was relieved of his duties on July 6 by the organization's board of directors, reportedly because of internal issues. Longtime assistant commissioner Bob Goldring took over as interim executive director until Ute was hired the first week of September. Goldring did not apply to remain the permanent director and returned to his role as senior direction of operations at the OHSAA.
When Ute started his tenure, some school districts in Ohio had already decided not to play a fall sports schedule. However, the majority began athletic competition in August, and only 2 to 3 percent of games were canceled because of COVID, Ute said.
"I just want to say thank God we have a governor and a lieutenant governor who recognize the value of mental health," Ute said. "This is more than athletics. A lot of times this is how our children stay connected to their peers. There is a social and emotional aspect involved here, too.
"This thing is taking a toll on everybody. Look at the toll it's taking on adults, now imagine that toll on the kids. I saw that emotional toll in April and May. When June came around, they were so excited to be back together."
While fall sports rolled through to completion, winter sports provide a different challenge -- with indoor venues and skyrocketing COVID cases throughout the Midwest.
Some advocated halting winter sports completely in Ohio. So, the OHSAA asked the member schools.
"We put out a survey, and 56 percent of the schools wanted to go forward with winter sports," Ute said. "Think about it, 56 percent, in an election, that's a landslide."
Some schools opted to pause, and Ute said those that did would have the opportunity for more games after they're eliminated from the tournament -- just as in the fall.
"We're really relying on the local health departments, they're in charge, and we're trying to help educate our folks from there," Ute said. "It's the job of that athletic administrator to run that event within the established guidelines.
"Either we follow the guidelines or our kids won't get to compete."
Ute said he's also involved with a couple of different collaboratives, one involving state athletic associations one with organizations from the East Coast as well as Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and another from the Midwest which reaches into the Dakotas. Each group meets frequently to discuss common problems and potential ideas.
One state had swimming season in the fall. Iowa played spring sports last summer.
"There's no blueprint for the virus," Ute said. "Our state tournaments (for winter sports) are set on dates, but what if March Madness becomes April Madness this year? I don't know, we may have to do that.
"What's worked in the past might not work this year. Our venues are changing. We have backup plans, and backups for our backups. We'll just have to wait and see how it goes."
Ute said he's learned that leadership and relationships are more important than ever.
"I think it was (Vladimir) Lenin that said there are decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades happen. This feels like that right now," he said. "I don't know that there are many rights or wrongs in this thing, and I won't criticize anyone for their opinion on it one way or the other.
"But I think we've learned it's important for us to be connected. It doesn't have to be athletics, it can be drama or band, anything that gives people joy and hope is important right now, and especially for our kids."