High school sports in the state have been shut down since last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This Friday, "Let Them Play" rallies are planned at high schools across California, including many in San Diego, calling for the return of competitive youth sports.
Organizers estimate tens of thousands of people will participate.
One of the more outspoken coaches pushing for a safe return to play is Torrey Pines High School head football coach Ron Gladnick.
"A week ago today we started a Facebook page with 700 people, we'll hit 29,000 or 30,000 people today," Gladnick told NBC 7 Wednesday. Gladnick is also a co-founder of the Golden State High School Coaches Association.
"Our 6,000 coaches, serve 100,000 kids and 200,000 angry parents," he said.
Gladnick and his supporters are upset because they believe the shutdown of high school sports has done more harm than good.
Audrey Koenig, a junior lacrosse player at Carlsbad High School, said "Sports can be a release for a lot of people and not having sports can be really hard for a lot of students who use sports as their only release for stress."
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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.
Gladnick and Let Them Play supporters believe the state's current policy is unintentionally adding to the COVID-19 crisis. Instead of quarantining, many teenage athletes are congregating together to play large group pick-up games, or even traveling out of state to play in tournaments. Thousands of kids and family members leave California each weekend to compete, then return.
"When will adults care enough about the kids to listen to an alternate plan, rather than continue to chase a bad policy that does not work," Gladnick said.
Among the chief frustration of the return play supporters is the lack of response from local and state political leaders to consider or even discuss alternate plans or ideas. Gladnick understands that this is a complicated health issue, but believes there is medical data that supports a safe return to play, and that above all, a structured sports environment is better than the current Wild West sports free for all.
Koenig, who has competed in club sports tournaments since high school sports were put on hold, said "If we did have more of a structure for sports, and obviously safely taking temperatures and regular COVID tests, if we implemented that, I think it would stop unsupervised and unorganized collections of people playing sports in places. I think it'd be honestly a safe way for kids to play sports."
At the county's COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday, San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher said he would be willing to meet with anyone who has concerns about high school sports, but stopped well short of supporting the Let Them Play cause.
"If you're facing 3rd and long, that's a situation where you ought to listen to football coaches, but if you're facing a global pandemic that is a situation where you ought to listen to public health experts and doctors," Fletcher said.
This is a complex issue, and Gladnick wants to make it clear this isn’t a Democratic or Republican driven agenda. For him, it's about helping kids and giving them a voice.
"As adults we have an inherent responsibility to do right by kids, and politicians have forgotten the most important aspect we have, which is our kids," he said.