“Let Them Play!” That’s the simple, but increasingly insistent, message of a group of Oregon coaches, parents, elected officials and students that is pushing back against the governor’s phase 2 coronavirus restrictions on contact sports at the high school level, which prohibit activities in which athletes can’t stay at least six feet apart.
The movement started in Medford Saturday but has quickly grown statewide. That the Facebook group has swelled to over 20,000 members and has captured more than 13,000 signatures on their online petition — all in less than a week — shows how much their message is resonating with people across Oregon.
That includes Canby High School football coach Jimmy Joyce, one of several local fall sports coaches who joined the movement within hours of its formation. He says the health and safety of athletes is always paramount, and no one is advocating for doing anything unsafe.
“We just want to have the conversation,” he says.
He said the movement applies not just to high school athletics but all other extracurricular activities that have been prohibited under the governor’s proposed reopening plan, which designates dance, cheer, marching band, orchestra and choir — among others — as “high-risk activities.”
“Years ago, I student-taught at a performing arts high school, and I witnessed the commitment, passion and impact the arts played on my students’ lives,” Joyce says. “These students shared the same passion and commitment that I and others share for athletics. No matter if it is football, dance or soccer, these activities provide opportunity and hope for students across the country.”
As outlined in the governor’s phase 2 reopening guidelines, this prohibition on physical contact for high school athletes would remain in effect until a vaccine or reliable treatment for Covid-19 is found. And yet, professional and college sports would not be held to the same standards.
“This not only acknowledges the fact that these activities can be engaged in safely, it creates an unacceptable disparity that needs to be rectified,” the group’s petition says. “Our kids need to be represented fairly in this decision and a plan to allow them to engage in their activities needs to be developed and adopted.”
Joyce cites many studies that show students who are involved in extracurricular activities perform better academically, but argues they also play a vital role in students’ social and emotional health.
“In these times of quarantine and distance learning, you would be hard-pressed to find a teacher anywhere that hasn’t laid awake at night worrying about the emotional well-being of our students,” said Joyce, who is also a teacher at CHS. “As we talk about how we can safely and effectively return to the classroom, I just think it is important to have that same discussion about returning to the fields, diamonds, tracks, pitches, stages and trails.
“When it comes down to it, this has nothing to do with wins and losses, but everything to do with the social and emotional well-being of student-athletes across the state.”
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, from Canby, supports the movement, as she explained in a Covid-19 public service announcement with other community leaders Wednesday night.
“I am very supportive of keeping our student-athletes safe, and figuring out a way to get them back on the field,” she said. “I hear you: I am a mom of three, and the time on the field and the sidelines has been very important to the development of my kiddos, and to our family and community.”
Not all are on board, however. An editorial in the Ashland Tidings Wednesday called the petition a “bad idea” and critiqued the alleged “double standard” the group sees in allowing contact sports at the professional and college levels, but not high school.
The editorial pointed out that professional and college athletes are adults, legally able to consider and accept risks for the activities in which they choose to engage — and receive compensation for them.
“Most high school athletes are minors, unable to enter into legal contracts without a parent’s signature,” the newspaper said. “Declaring that treating college and professional sports differently is ‘an unacceptable disparity’ ignores a legitimate distinction that exists for good reasons.”
The Oregon Department of Education on Wednesday released its draft guidance on the mandatory and recommended guidelines that would allow students and teachers to reenter classrooms next school year.
It, too, acknowledged the critical role athletics and other extracurricular activities play in ensuring the physical and mental well-being of students.
It said athletics and the use of school facilities could resume following the end of the 2019-2020 school year — as long as all of the Oregon Health Authority and CDC-recommended physical distancing guidelines are observed.