Youth sports have long been considered a touchstone of the American high school experience. For better or for worse, they’ve historically played a large—even outsized—role on both high school campuses and the college admissions process. When COVID-19 hit and schools across California were forced to shut down, that all changed. Now, with talk of reopening schools accelerating, groups across the state have formed to try and reopen youth sports as well.
By far the most influential of the lot is Let Them Play CA. Their Facebook page—where much of their organizing is done—was founded just in December of 2020. Yet in the three months since, this loose coalition of coaches, parents, and student athletes has grown to over 50,000 members. They have engaged in letter-writing campaigns, hosted press conferences and Zoom meetings, held 100-person protests across the state, and more, all with the goal of persuading Governor Gavin Newsom to allow youth sports to resume across California. Three months in, and their efforts appear to be paying off.
Following a protest organized by Let Them Play CA at the California State Capitol Building, Gov. Newsom’s office released a statement promising updated guidance in the next week and a half. According to the statement, “Safely returning our youth back to playing the sports that are important for their physical and mental health is a priority for California.”
This effort and the Governor’s response comes amidst mounting political pressure on Newsom, with many Californians growing increasingly frustrated with his pandemic response. A major campaign to recall the Governor has been making headlines as it nears the required threshold of votes to be viable.
In addition to coaches and students, a large group of California legislators signed a letter urging Newsom to reopen sports. Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty was one such member, tweeting, “Today we sent a letter to [Gavin Newsom] [with] bipartisan support urging new guidance that will permit outdoor youth sporting activities [with] increased safety protocols in place.” Current state guidance allows for different levels of sports to resume depending on the county’s transmission rates as measured by the state’s color-tier system. All youth sports are currently allowed to practice and train outdoors. Track and field competitions are allowed under purple-tier restrictions while basketball games may resume under red-tier.
What do Sacramento teens think of this effort to reopen youth sports?
Of the four high school students interviewed for this article, none were involved with #LetThemPlayCA or had heard of the effort beforehand. That said, most student athletes agreed with the groups’ position.
“Working out and playing sports is a key part of my mental and physical wellbeing,” said Christopher Robinson, a Junior at Christian Brothers High School in Oak Park. Lucas Boisvert, a Senior at JFK High School in the Pocket, and member of the varsity volleyball team, agreed, saying, “As long as the [COVID-19] transmission rate is low we should be able to participate in sports.”
Summer Santich, a Senior at Inderkum High School in Natomas, and member of their cross country team, took a more nuanced approach. While she believes all youth sports should be allowed to reopen, “contact sports need to have stricter guidelines.” She agreed with the others on the mental health aspect, however, saying, “A lot of us have gone almost a year without seeing our friends and even family… Getting one normal thing back would help students’ mental health and increase their academic performance.”
But the majority of high school students are not involved in club or varsity sports, and any effort to reopen youth sports wouldn’t benefit students who don’t play. Some critics of the group say that reopening schools for all students should come before allowing sports to resume.
One such critic is Vivian Zalunardo, a junior at CK McClatchy High School in Land Park. She worries about the potential for students to cause an outbreak and reverse the downward trend California has been seeing over the past month. “If we let kids play sports right now and an entire team catches COVID then it’ll be back to square one,” she said. She also thought that while the mental health argument was valid, reopening schools would provide the same effect. “Letting kids play sports again while the rest of us don’t get to go back to in-person school doesn’t make sense to me.”
Those worries are also held by one Grant High School basketball coach, Deonard Wilson, who was recently interviewed by CBS 13. “People are dying and we’re talking about recalling because we can’t play high school sports or elementary sports?” he said.
Although Wilson realizes most teens won’t be affected even if they do get COVID, he’s concerned about them passing it on to others, especially family members. “It probably won’t hurt you, but you don’t want to get something and go home and kill your grandma.”