High school sports commissioner ready to make hard calls

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Blanford-Green

One of the state’s greatest prep athletes ever, Rhonda Blanford-Green is commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association.

Earlier this month, Basalt High School Athletic Director Jason Santo told us there could be a legitimate, but abbreviated, spring sports season following the coronavirus closures.

At that time, it seemed classes might resume by the end of March, with practices and competitions gearing up by April 18. Now, Roaring Fork Valley schools and many others are out of session until at least that date. Unless the school year itself goes longer, it now looks like the entire spring could get wiped out. Many student-athletes may miss a year of competition. Some seniors might miss out on scholarship dollars and opportunities.

This week, Colorado’s high school sports leader spoke about the coronavirus situation. Rhonda Blanford-Green lettered in nearly everything a young woman could compete in at Aurora Central in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

She was a track and field star who also played volleyball. She was a cheerleader and was on the dance squad too. In her senior spring, 1981, she set a new state record at nearly every meet. Her 19’8” long jump mark and blazing 100-meter dash and hurdles times remained the girls’ standards for decades.

At Nebraska, she went undefeated for four years in the indoor and outdoor hurdles, running up 18 Big Eight championships. Blandford-Green was an 11-time All-American, once held a world hurdles record, and was a member and captain of the U.S. Track and Field team for several years.

Blandford-Green taught and coached in the Aurora schools, served 16 years as a Colorado High School Activities Association administrator, directed the Nebraska high school association, and assisted in Louisiana before returning to Colorado to take over as commissioner of CHSAA in 2017, a year after her induction into the CHSAA Hall of Fame.

Character is being revealed

Of the COVID-19 crisis, commissioner Blanford-Green tells the RFWJ: “There are only 51 of us nationwide running state associations, and we’re all being challenged more than ever. It’s revealing character, integrity, and leadership styles. It’s put a spotlight on stepping up to the plate, being transparent and honest, making tough decisions. My main thing is still embracing the emotion. I know that’s real. I know what it means to a lot of kids, physically and mentally. At the end of the day, there’s a level of accountability you have to accept in these positions. You have to do the right thing. It’s bigger than athletics.”

Coronavirus really came home for Colorado March 12, when Blanford-Green had to make that tough decision, pulling the trigger to end the 3A, 2A, and 1A basketball tournaments, just as the Great Eights had become Final Fours.

Following a 5-overtime, 1-0 hockey championship won by Valor Christian over Fort Collins two nights before, CHSAA was feeling pretty good. It had already eliminated most of the hoops crowds, almost not even letting parents watch the semis in person, but Blanford-Green reconsidered.

“You start to look at the emotional piece of it. This is their kids’ event, they’ve been a part of this.”

The commissioner says her own experience gave her perspective: “I’ve been a state champion, so I put myself in the place of the athlete on the high school level.”

Only hours after the double-whammy of her postponing spring sports until at least April 6 and Denver banning big crowds in its state of emergency, the University of Denver told the commissioner it couldn’t continue with the 3A semis and title games the next two days, and the call was made.

Blanford-Green said there was plenty to consider. “The basketball tournament means a lot, to a lot of people. From student-athletes and parents, to volunteers who haven’t missed one in 40 years, and work for a T-shirt and a hot dog for three straight days, over two straight weekends. We have officials – maybe this was their first invitation to call a state championship. They’ve worked hard all year and been evaluated to finally get that honor.”

But in the end, did she do the right thing? The commish said for everyone’s health, yes. “I think the decision by DU kind of put an exclamation point on where we were, as we all started to learn more about COVID-19.”

The responses were all over the place. But again, Blanford-Green’s past informed her present. “Having been a parent who’s had one kid win a state tournament in volleyball, and another one make the big show in baseball, it’s sometimes hard to disconnect from what you think someone took away from your son or daughter. Frankly, I felt the kids, the student-athletes, who reached out to me handled the decision with more maturity than most adults did.

“Because when faced with the decision ‘would you give up your state basketball championship?,’ I go back to me —‘Would you give up your hurdle race,’ in which I was the state champion, ‘in order to save your grandpa’s life?’ Almost every kid would say ‘yes.’ And that’s where this conversation is right now. We’re trying to slow down the spread of COVID-19. It wasn’t just about a game, it was about the safety and well-being of everybody tied to that tournament.”

As athletes statewide work out privately during these idle weeks to get or stay in shape, what comes next is a mystery. Boys and girls lacrosse and track teams, girls golf, soccer and tennis, boys swimming, and baseball are all standing by, watching the calendar ebb.

Roaring Fork lacrosse was expected to stand out this year for both genders, Basalt girls soccer was excited about new coaching, and both schools’ track and field competitors were looking forward to faster times, higher jumps and vaults.

Blanford-Green tells us the association simply has to learn what public health, the state school board, and local districts decide. “We’re all on hold. Until those decisions are made and restrictions lifted, we aren’t in any position to move forward.” She also can’t be sure if the year could extend into June or July. “We’re an extension of the classroom. We don’t operate outside our membership’s academic offerings. We don’t even know if we’re going to resume in-school education. That’s the priority.”

She has a huge job, and Rhonda Blanford-Green is duck-like. Very calm above the surface, but below, there’s a whole lot of paddling going on. Where does she go for advice? Same as she always did, and many of your young athletes do — to Mom.

The commissioner said just last week, “I was telling my mom, I was just amazed at the way I was able to handle the ‘craze,’ with no script from a leadership book, and a lot of decisions being made outside my control, not daily, but hourly. It even affected the way I communicate, transparently but honestly. And my mom said to me, ‘Why are you amazed? You’ve always had it in you. It was just waiting to come out when it mattered.’”