*This is an Op-Ed. KSE does not endorse or denounce anything written in this piece, we are simply a news source. All opinions, dissenting or in support of, are welcome.
The WIAA is meeting this week to make a recommendation to Wisconsin school districts as to whether to proceed with fall sports. There is also a proposal to move fall sports to the spring and then in turn spring sports to the summer. The WIAA and KUSD allowed summer contact days and work out days for football during the month of July and spring sports were able to hold some track and field competitions and baseball scrimmages. Coaches are working very hard to put the guidelines in place and it is going well. I just came from the Bradford, ITA, and Tremper Varsity baseball scrimmages and the banter and camaraderie among the athletes was undeniable. The athletes were so thankful and appreciative to just be out on the field having fun and competing again. I have seen photos from the track competitions and you could see the athletes smiling in every picture and putting their best effort out there. Athletes by nature just want a chance to compete and be on the field or on the track with their teammates. The football team is in the weight room lifting and having contact days and it is a joy to hear the team talk about their chances for the upcoming season.
Coronavirus is just that – a virus. There is a lot we still don’t know about it, but there is also a lot that we have learned about it since the first cases arrived in the United States. It will be here for the foreseeable future and a vaccine optimistically might be here by the end of the year, but realistically could be a year away. We have to learn to operate with it. If parents do not feel comfortable with their athlete competing that is fine. They have the option not to participate. There are many families that are fine with the season going on as planned. In March, when we were under a “stay at home order” it was understandable that spring sports were canceled. We knew very little about the virus and school was only in session virtually. We need to put our energies into finding safe ways to hold these contests. Athletes can be tested regularly, checked for symptoms daily, wear masks during instructional meetings, and practice social distancing when needed. Practices and drills can be done in smaller groups. It is already successfully being done. The athletes are receptive and compliant. Games and contests can limit fan attendance to immediate family and the contests can be streamed on Facebook or other streaming services. These athletic events are a huge part of school spirit. Initially KUSD cancelled graduation, but eventually, after much feedback from families and students they put together some very creative and well done graduation ceremonies. I believe we can do the same thing with fall sports. We should at least try it before outright canceling everything.
There is more to athletics than just the competition piece. A recent study completed at the University of Madison estimated that 66,000 Wisconsin adolescents may be at risk for depression. The study also states that “in the short term, mental health disorders can impact whether these students use drugs/alcohol, engage with their peers or graduate high school. In the long term, these disorders can become chronic and can influence whether these individuals go to college, use drugs/alcohol extensively or form meaningful lifelong relationships.” Exercise and organized sports are widely recognized as powerful antidepressant and anti-anxiety interventions.
The participation for virtual learning to end the semester this past spring, from my understanding, was very low. Student athletes have incentive to participate and keep their grades up in school just to be allowed out on the field. This keeps many students from falling into the wrong crowds. They want to put that uniform on and get on the field. They have coaches and teachers that they look to as mentors. They confide in them and ask them for direction. Many of these students will get lost without these opportunities even if school is virtual and mandatory. Their coaches hold them accountable and have conversations about completing assignments, tardiness, etc. It concerns me that these students could be in abusive or difficult family situations. Their coaches are often the people that observe these issues and bring them to the forefront. They help the students get the assistance and resources that they may need. If they aren’t participating in school and/or on an athletic team, I worry that these athletes will be lost in the shuffle. Sports and athletics also inspire leadership. They also foster the ability to teach students what it is like to be a good teammate. Athletics show students the importance of winning as a team and losing as a team and treating your teammates as family. They inspire students to push each other to their personal limits and celebrate each other’s personal gains and successes. These are the intangible benefits that cannot be replicated.
These same athletes have been holding down jobs during all of this in grocery stores, warehouses, and restaurants, but they might not be allowed to go to school and compete in athletics? The general public can eat at restaurants and go to the beach, but we are unable to hold athletic events and we cannot attend athletic events? Our messaging needs to be consistent.
Moving fall sports to the spring will further complicate issues. You have senior athletes that are hoping to show recruiters how much they have worked over the summer. National Signing Day is in February. Early signings are done in December. Student athletes need to have college applications submitted by the time you would be looking to hold the “fall sports” season in March. They need to be able to make decisions before that timeline. College sports are continuing their seasons. There have been some adjustments made, but most are moving forward. Why should high school athletics be different? You have parents sending their student athletes to other schools and even out of state just to give them an opportunity to compete their senior year. That is wrong. Those students should be able to see their athletic careers culminate at the school and in the school district where it all began. But, these athletes want options and they want to play, so in turn families are making difficult decisions to give them those opportunities. Ultimately, moving fall sports to the spring will force multi-sport athletes to choose to play only one sport. Activities will be pushed into the summer which could have an effect on the start of the 2021 season. For the senior athletes, they may need to report to their college of choice before their high school athletic career is even completed. This further hinders their opportunities.
There are risks with everything that we do in life. If coaches are comfortable and willing to lead and instruct the students and families are giving permission for athletes to play, what harm is there in trying to start the season? We should support our student athletes and coaches and have faith that the risks will be mitigated as they are compliant with the guidelines set forward. We need to trust that these young adults will take pride in their opportunity and in turn the fall sports season can proceed without incident.