High school football returned to the Treasure Valley on Saturday.
Hopefully youth sports and school recess will return fully next week.
But the smoky air that locked most of us indoors for four days last week will return – perhaps in the next few days.
For high school sports teams, the smoke brings a logistical challenge and scheduling uncertainty but easy decision-making. If the air is unhealthy, practices and games are canceled.
For the Boise State football team, it’s not that simple. Yet it should be: Don’t play in air rated unhealthy.
The Mountain West Conference and the NCAA have studied the air quality issue in recent years as it has become clear that smoke-clogged air is going to be a late-summer regularity across the West.
The NCAA created hazy guidelines that would have allowed Boise State and Washington State to play here Saturday night even if the Air Quality Index had remained in the red, unhealthy category (151-200). Fortunately, the AQI plummeted below 100 and was 68 at kickoff.
The Mountain West, which stages many of its events in communities that deal with wildfire smoke, took a slightly firmer stance. The conference recommends not playing when the AQI tops 150 — but stopped short of a hard-and-fast rule.
That ambiguity could come into play as soon as Thursday night, when New Mexico is scheduled to play at Albertsons Stadium in a conference game slated for a national broadcast on ESPN.
If the smoke that postponed or canceled every high school football game in Ada and Canyon counties on Thursday and Friday drifts back into the Treasure Valley, there will be real debate about whether to play that game.
The Mountain West didn’t make 150 a firm cutoff. But some member institutions actually wanted the recommended AQI to postpone games set at an even lower number.
The conference has postponed soccer games for poor air quality. At least a couple football games have been in jeopardy during game weeks but the air has improved enough to avoid any issues, said Bret Gilliland, Mountain West deputy commissioner.
“The decision needs to be made on-site with all the appropriate parties involved,” Gilliland said, “with measurements you’re getting at that specific site to decide whether you think it’s appropriate or not to play.”
The push to play a game in bad air would be strong. Canceling a game creates a financial headache. Moving it causes logistical problems, adds travel expenses and perhaps shuts out some ticket holders. Postponing an ESPN game like Boise State’s Washington State or New Mexico games could cost airtime.
Those costs are easy to identify.
On the other side is the health of the players — and, easily forgotten, the health of the 30,000-plus fans in the stands. Older people, kids and those with ailments such as asthma are told to limit their exposure to outside air when the AQI is above 100. The sensitive group could include football players with respiratory or pulmonary conditions.
It’s unclear exactly what the health risks are to intense exercise in smoky air.
Dr. James Souza of St. Luke’s told KIVI “there’s a small chance, but a real chance, that heavy exercise in this sort of environment can cause permanent injury to the lung.” But Dr. Carroll Cross, a UC Davis professor whose expertise includes oxidative stress and respiratory tract biology, said football players likely would be at greater risk of concussions than smoke-related injury.
“We should be trying to stay indoors on days with heavy particulates, especially from fires,” Cross said by email. “... Heavy exercise can throw as much as 10 times the ‘pollutants’ into the lung as would occur ‘at rest’ and that is why elementary schools cancel outdoors activities on smoggy days in many cities.”
Ian Smart, the varsity football coach at Timberline High and a former Boise State defensive lineman, endured a frustrating week with his team. The Wolves held walkthroughs in the cafeteria on Tuesday and Wednesday and rescheduled their game from Thursday night to Saturday afternoon. Under Boise School District policy, Smart couldn’t even take his team outside to walk through plays.
Yet he’s glad that he wasn’t allowed to make those decisions.
“I know that I would do everything I can to protect kids,” Smart said. “But in the face of competition ... do I ride the fence at 160 (AQI)? It’s just nice for us to say, ‘Hey, let our administration tell us.’ I’m sure we have kids with some respiratory issues. I don’t want to have a kid drop dead on the football field. That’s the reality.”
Smart knows what it’s like to play in smoky air. For the first August scrimmage in 2006, the Broncos played through a smoky windstorm.
“It just made it harder to recover your air,” Smart said. “As you’re going eight, nine plays — scrimmage drives, which are a lot more intense than a game — it was really hard to recover and get my breath completely back. I wouldn’t want to be put in that situation again.”
At the time, we weren’t as hyper-conscious of air quality. Then-coach Chris Petersen even said the smokestorm “was good for us — it keeps us focused and concentrating.”
The smoke was so bad that it showed up on the video of the scrimmage, Smart said. Today, someone probably would have stopped that practice — or moved it indoors. We’ve become smarter.
But as a college athlete, Smart said, he would have wanted to keep playing.
“Someone has to save us from ourselves,” he said. “Who’s going to be the person that takes the stand and goes, ‘You know what, we’ve got to do the right thing for the people that are basically the entertainment.’ ”