Not just a game: Advocates say Michigan restriction on winter school sports hurts students

A basketball on a gym floor.
Student athletes and their advocates are pushing Michigan officials to reverse an order that restricts winter contact sports. (John Giustina / The Image Bank / Getty Images)

Cries of “let them play” have been ringing out across Michigan since the state extended a halt on winter contact sports last week, but it’s about more than just getting kids out on the playing field to score points.

Advocates say Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should rethink the state’s decision, which was made because of COVID-19 safety concerns, because they say student athletes need to play for their social and emotional health, because it may be the one thing that gets and keeps them engaged in school, and because many need the physical outlet and the structure of team sports.

“It’s important for students to play because sports are an extension of school,” Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told Chalkbeat earlier this week. “If we want students to return to in-person learning then we need to allow them to play sports.”

The advocacy has stretched from legislative halls to social media. On Thursday, the Michigan Senate passed a resolution, proposed by Republican Sen. Dale Zorn, that urged Whitmer and her administration to reconsider the order extending through Feb. 21 the ban that affects basketball, hockey, competitive cheerleading, and wrestling. 

Around the same time the Senate took action, parents, students, lawmakers, coaches, athletic directors, and others took their case to lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee, which held a hearing on the state order Thursday morning.

“For me, basketball has been an escape from the world around me, from all the negative things going on in the world,” said Ethan Coady, a senior basketball player in Coopersville, near Grand Haven in Ottawa County. “It’s a time when you put your shoes on and go out there with some of your best friends in the world and you play. Playing is the ultimate stress reliever.”

But that stress reliever is gone, Coady told lawmakers. 

“There is no hanging out with your friends without getting yelled at. Instead, now it’s lonely. It’s you and your thoughts about the sad world.” 

And when people argue that young people like him need to think of others, he said he wonders, “Who thinks of me? Who thinks of thousands of kids who go home every day not knowing if they can make it through the night because they feel trapped being with themselves, when simply dribbling a ball up and down the court with some friends could save them?”

The issue has united people from different political spectrums. Vitti, for instance, a Whitmer supporter, penned a letter Monday to the governor in which he was critical of her actions regarding high school sports. Advocates have cited data provided by the Michigan High School Athletic Association that show a 99.8% negativity rate when students and coaches who participated in fall sports were tested for the coronavirus as part of a pilot program with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

Sports advocates have raised a number of questions: Why are schools being urged to reopen for in-person learning if it’s too dangerous for high school contact sports to resume? Why are professional and college sports allowed to continue? Why is it OK for gym classes to continue with far more students than would be on a playing field?

And across social media, athletes from Detroit to the Upper Peninsula have committed to holding themselves and their teammates accountable for following COVID-19 safety protocols. 

During Thursday’s hearing, two Democratic lawmakers on the committee raised questions about the more contagious coronavirus variant that has temporarily shut down athletic programs at the University of Michigan and has experts predicting it will become the dominant form of the virus by the spring.

“That’s very concerning to me,” said state Rep. David LaGrand, a Democrat from Grand Rapids.

Earlier in the week, Whitmer raised similar worries.

“With the spread of this new variant in Michigan, we’ve got to not let our guard down,” Whitmer said during a news conference Monday.

She noted that the state is allowing restaurants and bars to reopen Feb. 1, saying that decision “will increase the amount of people that are out and about and I think it’s important that we stay very focused on where the numbers are before we take additional steps.”

Whitmer earlier this month called on schools across Michigan to provide an in-person learning option by March 1. While some students have had face-to-face instruction all school year, many others have been learning virtually. Some haven’t been in a school building since March. The extended online learning experience has fueled concerns about learning losses and student mental health among athletes and nonathletes.

Vitti said denying students the opportunity to participate in sports negatively impacts their mental health.

“For many students, sports provides structure, purpose, motivation, and a reason to push through the aspects of life (including school) that are less than ideal,” Vitti said. “At this age, it is part of their identity. It allows them to belong to something greater than themselves. During the pandemic, it allows for normalcy and social engagement.”

John Thompson, a member of the MHSAA representative board and the athletic director at Brighton High School, told lawmakers Thursday that he’s worried about increased depression and anxiety. He said student athletes will abide by whatever safety precautions are necessary.

“They just want to play.”

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