A series of rallies across California Friday pushed for an end to coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions on competitive youth sports, calling on the state to just “let them play.”
There were at least a dozen school communities throughout San Diego County planning on participating in "Let Them Play" rallies Friday with the same goal in mind: getting kids back on the sports fields and courts.
School communities combined their voices, holding at least three regional rallies at Torrey Pines, San Marcos, and Granite Hills high schools. Student-athletes, coaches, parents, community members and even elected officials joined to give the rallies a voice.
Several dozen people, mostly adults who were masked up though not all were social distancing, turned out at about 9:30 a.m. for a news conference on the campus of Torrey Pines High School.
Among those attending was San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond, who has been vocal about reopening the county in the past, joined in the rally at Torrey Pines.
“Our weaknesses in COVID are our elderly and our infirmed," Desmond said. "Our strength is our youth. Let our kids play.”
Desmond said the state should work with coaches to find a way to get youth back into sports. He stressed that coaches would be responsible for keeping kids safe, by ensuring young athletes wear masks off the field. Youth should also stay social distanced from the elderly, and from their parents and grandparents.
Many of the coaches that attended the rally stressed that sports was much more than a game to these young athletes, who need the relief of the activity to provide emotional support. The coaches said no sports can lead to increases in mental health problems, like anxiety, ADHD and suicide.
"That is a mental health emergency in our young that is not being addressed by our health departments. I challenge them to put kids first, to take care of their mental health, to do it in a safe way," said former Oceanside High School Coach John Carroll.
Sports programs also lead to scholarships for some student-athletes, one coach said, so without the competition element, some are losing interest in school and harming their education.
Scripps Ranch High School head coach Marlon Gardinera suggested children would be safer from COVID-19 in the structured environment of a team sport.
"If you think parents have been keeping their teenagers locked up since March, you’re lying to yourself. They’re hanging out with each other, they're going to parties, they’re riding around in cars, they’re doing all sorts of things that helps spread the virus," Gardinera said. "When they’re with us, they have face masks, they're socially distanced, they have a goal. They understand that they're [following COVID-19 safety protocols] for a reason.”
Later in the afternoon, several school communities staked claim to the sidewalks lining Granite Hills High School in El Cajon. Students and parents, clustered along the block separated by school colors, waved signs, led chants and encouraged passersby to honk and wave back.
From home, Granite Hills head football coach Kyle McComb told NBC 7 that it wasn't fair the rest of the country is "getting a chance to play their sports."
McComb, and his son who plays football, argued everyone should have the freedom to make a choice.
WHY ORGANIZERS WANT TO RESUME SCHOOL SPORTS
In San Diego County, high school competitive sports have been on hold for 10 months – since mid-March 2020, when the COVID-19 crisis reached the region.
Supporters of the Let Them Play campaign argue that many other states have been able to resume competitive youth sports amid the pandemic. They maintain that without high school sports, many athletes are gathering for pick-up games or even traveling out of state with their families for tournaments instead of staying home, which may be contributing to the spread of the virus.
NBC 7 spoke with local organizers of Let Them Play earlier this week.
One coach leading the charge on the safe return of high school sports is Torrey Pines High School head football coach, Ron Gladnick. He said earlier this week that he believed the shutdown of sports has done more harm than good.
Gladnick said more kids have come to him with trouble in the past 10 months than in his previous 14 years of coaching.
"I've had kids in my own program who have suicidal thoughts, kids who have anxiety, depression; kids who don't want to get out of bed. 'Why should I get out of bed? There's nothing to get out of bed for.' The list goes on and on," he said.
“When will adults care enough about the kids to listen to an alternative plan as opposed to continuously chasing a bad policy that does not work?” Gladnick added. “As adults, we have an inherent responsibility to do right by kids. And politicians have forgotten the most important asset we have which is our kids.”
On Friday, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said he would meet with Gladnick to hear his concerns.
STUDENT ATHLETES' PERSPECTIVE
Audrey Koenig, who is a Carlsbad High School lacrosse player, explained to NBC 7 earlier this week why sports are important to her.
“Sports can kind of be a release for people and not having that is really hard for a lot of students who use sports as their only outlet,” Koenig said.
The high school lacrosse player believes that a safe return to competitive sports is possible, so long as health precautions re in place, such as temperature screenings and regular COVID-19 testing.
“If we implemented that, I think it would stop those unsupervised and unorganized collection of people playing sports in places,” she said. “I think it’d be honestly a safer way for kids to play sports.”
High school senior Cameron Jimenez, who was rallying at Granite Hills on Friday, said he and his classmates just want a chance.
"There are plenty of schools out here. They just want a chance. People have futures on the line," he said.
THE RESPONSE FROM POLITICAL LEADERS
Supporters of Let Them Play said one of the frustrations has been the lack of response from local and state political leaders to discuss alternate plans.
At a Jan. 13 San Diego County public health briefing, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said he would be willing to meet with anyone who has concerns about the pause on high school sports. He said there’s hope on the horizon for competitive youth sports – just not quite yet.
“Our hope is certainly that by the fall, all of our sports are back,” Fletcher said.
For now, as the pandemic wears on, Fletcher said public health is the top priority.
“If you’re facing 3rd and long, that’s a situation where you oughtta listen to football coaches,” Fletcher said. “If you’re facing a global pandemic, that is a situation where you oughtta make sure you’re listening to public health experts and doctors.”
THE RESPONSE FROM HEALTH EXPERTS
A parent who participated in Friday's rally at Torrey Pines High School, who is also a mental health professional and coordinator for a cheerleading team, said the benefits of youth sports go far beyond camaraderie and fitness.
"As a mental health therapist, I've seen an increase in anxiety, depression, ADHD, suicide ideation, suicide attempts -- unfortunately, some of those attempts come to fruition. Sports is not just about athletics, folks. It's about the social and emotional well-being of our athletes. Please, let our athletes play," Melanie Burkholder said.
Corinne McDaniels-Davidson, head of San Diego State University's Institute for Public Health, said the community spread data and the situation at hospitals are proof enough that now isn't the time for kids to be competing.
"This isn't choosing to wear a seatbelt or not wear a seatbelt, or not wear a motorcycle helmet, this is an airborne virus that we spread from person to person doing daily activities," McDaniels-Davidson explained.
As for claims from the other side that the situation is unfair, McDaniels-Davidson said the scales are tipped no matter which way you look at them.
"What is not fair is the fact that the people who are doing all that hard work on the front lines are having to face what they're facing every day, and they're losing loved ones, and they're watching people die," she said.
McDaniels-Davidson in times like this, everyone needs to think about others before they think about themselves.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released these pandemic-related safety guidelines for youth and adult indoor and outdoor sports. The guidelines touch on everything from face masks and physical distancing to cohorts, sanitation practices, venues and observers.
San Diego County remains under the state’s regional stay-at-home order. The CDC recommends that for counties under the stay-at-home order, youth limit their sport activities to their own households.
Also, for right now, the CDC’s guidelines state “any tournaments or events that involved more than two teams are not currently permitted in California.” The guidelines also say exceptions may be made – with authorization from the local health department – for sports where individual competitors are routine, like track and field, cross-country, golf, skiing/snowboarding, tennis, swimming/diving.