The numbers were impressive: 1,200 people – including high school football players, coaches, parents and legislators – rallied at the Capitol on Sept. 9 to protest the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference decision to suspend the fall season.
Even more impressive was the fact that the event began as a grassroots effort by student-athletes who wrote a petition that quickly morphed into the player-planned rally – a true exercise in citizen action. Gov. Ned Lamont responded by asking the CIAC and Department of Public Health to meet (yet again) to discuss the possibility of fall football.
The on-again-off-again status of high school football seemed to be moving back toward “on-again” until it veered to “off-again” on Sept. 14 when the DPH stood by its original assessment. Two days later, the CIAC made it official and cancelled fall football.
Through it all, I’ve been asking myself, “Do all coaches and parents really want high school football played during a pandemic? What about the health risks? Should we simply deem “meaningless” the warnings of the DPH and the National Federation of State High School Associations who place football in the “high risk” category?
Such risks are highlighted by Dr. Sten Vermund, a pediatrician, epidemiologist and the dean of the Yale School of Public Health: “I think that contact sports, when we just emerged from this massive pandemic surge that we had in April and extended into May as well, and is still brewing at a low level … it makes more sense to have physical distancing and masking. And contact sports are inherently in your face. You’re spitting on each other, or grunting at each other, you’re shouting at each other – it’s a perfect venue to transmit virus from an asymptomatic player to a susceptible individual.”
Given those risks, why haven’t more coaches spoken out against playing football in the fall? Clearly, mine was a minority opinion when I publicly suggested a spring season over a month ago. Still, I have to believe that other coaches recognize not only the safety issues, but also the hypocrisy of spending the entire school day masked-up in socially-distanced classrooms only to reverse those safety measures after school.
The original CIAC plan, for example, defined full-team practices that would “involve 30 minutes of contact intended to demonstrate and teach tackling and blocking progressions. The remaining 60 minutes of skill work is non-contact and maintains a social distance of 6 feet for all participants.”
I’m sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. Troubled by the contradiction, I informed my head coach and athletic director in mid-August that I would not be coaching football in the fall. If I wanted to maintain the safety of students-athletes – and if I wanted to eliminate the possibility of bringing the virus home to my wife and daughter – I had to opt out. What’s more, I needed to be home after school to help my family piece together our complicated, COVID-driven schedules.
Am I really the only coach who feels this way? To be sure, football coaches understand the major sacrifice players are making by surrendering the season, but don’t they also recognize there is more at stake than one football season?
“One of the local school districts just voted to allow full capacity for their football game next week against their rival – over 600-plus capacity, our state-mandated maximum for outdoor events,” a friend of mine from Pennsylvania told me. She has multiple sclerosis. “But is football really that important? Seriously? This is why as a high-risk person, I’m afraid to go anywhere.”
Adds Dr. Vermund of Yale, “Keep in mind that we’re worried about the grandmothers and grandfathers in the crowd, and the teachers who are my age because the children are not likely to get seriously ill. That’s the one good thing about the novel coronavirus – it doesn’t assault the young as substantially as it assaults the old. But these kids are in touch with their loved ones, their grandparents, their teachers, staff members, sometimes even parents who are over the age of 60, who have an underlying medical condition.”
So when players say they’re “willing to take the risk” of contracting COVID while playing football, are they also thinking about everyone crossing their paths who would then be taking that same risk? I would hope the adults in these kids’ lives – their coaches, their parents, and even the officials at the CIAC – might remind them of this larger responsibility.
Please understand: I applaud the players who organized the rally, even as I question the wisdom of such a large gathering, masks and all. Young people are to be commended for speaking out. And I certainly hate to see them deprived of playing football – that’s why I’ve consistently endorsed a spring season if the metrics allow it. I only wish more adults would moderate this youthful enthusiasm with the medical knowledge and level-headed caution that a global pandemic deserves. Some things really are more important than high school football.
Barth Keck of Haddam-Killingworth High School is entering his 30th year as an English teacher and has worked as assistant football coach for 15 years.
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