LANSING, Mich. — A large group of students, coaches and their families gathered outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing on Saturday, Jan. 30, for a rally seeking to have winter high school “contact sports” start their seasons earlier than the Feb. 21 date mandated by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS).
The event was initiated by Ethan Coady, a student at Coopersville High School, and partially organized by an organization called “Let Them Play.”
“As I looked about the thousands in attendance, I saw massive school pride with flags being flown and school colors proudly on display,” said New Buffalo High School boys varsity basketball coach Nate Tripp, who attended the rally with some of his players. “Ironically enough, the coaches and a few players from River Valley and our small group wound up in the same area, and rivals aside, it was awesome to see them there having their voices heard for their sports.”
Tripp said he reflected on “how I have done everything asked of me, how the players have done everything asked of them, and it reminded me that we are not in normal times, but something normal is exactly what these kids need right now.”
High school contact winter sports — Basketball, wrestling, hockey and competitive cheer — were on hold until the Feb. 21 date at the time of the rally — but that changed on Thursday, Feb. 4.
The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) made the following announcement on Feb. 4:
Per an announcement today by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), Michigan High School Athletic Association member schools may begin full practice activities in the Winter contact sports of girls and boys basketball, competitive cheer, ice hockey and wrestling on Monday, Feb. 8, with some precautions to continue limiting the spread of COVID-19.
Competition in those four sports also will begin next week, with basketball and hockey able to play Feb. 8 and cheer and wrestling able to compete starting Feb. 12.
Those four Winter contact sports have been able to practice since Jan. 16, but only with non-contact activities. MHSAA Tournament dates for all four sports previously were rescheduled into late March and early April to accommodate a later start to the regular season. All four Winter contact sports also must participate with some level of masking and/or rapid testing. All testing will be coordinated between schools and MDHHS or their local health departments.
“The rally was incredible,” said Tripp. “The atmosphere was electric, so much passion and desire from young athletes to play their sports. As a coach, I see the behind-the-scenes work that goes in, and it truly is incredible, and to hear these athletes from all over the state pour their hearts out, it is something I will never forget and something that I know the players who attended from our team will truly grow from being able to experience,” he said.
Tripp almost all who took part were wearing masks.
He noted that there were no counter-protesters, no political signs, no violence or hate, just frustrations and a very powerful message from long athletes.
“I truly hope that these powerful messages reach the decision makers and they apply the data given to them and allow winter sports, and this is not just about basketball and wrestling, but cheer, hockey, dance, band, theater, etc. to get back a piece of normalcy in all of their lives by being able to perform and compete in their passions,” he said.
“All in all, no matter what decisions are made, these young men have had their voices heard, they were shouting for their voices, the girls' program, cheer, wrestling, dance, they were advocating for all of their friends and fellow athletes back at New Buffalo.”
On Jan. 29 River Valley Superintendent Scott Bojanich sent a “Return to School Sports” letter MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel that reads as follows:
The River Valley School District is committed to the safety of our students and it remains our top priority. We have been diligent in our efforts to preserve the health and safety of Michigan’s citizens, and we want you to know that we are allies in the fight to quash this pandemic.
Even during a pandemic, the education that schools provide extends beyond academics and classrooms. Student participation in extra-curricular activities plays an essential role in school engagement for a large number of students. Absent these activities, student well-being suffers.
Our district understands that with every decision made regarding the placing of restrictions on activities due to COVID, there is a careful analysis done to inform those decisions. It is our district’s belief that such an analysis favors allowing all Michigan schools the option to resume Winter sports seasons, under strict protocols, at this time. Part of this belief is based upon our geographical location next to high density populations in our neighboring state. Indiana has been able to successfully conduct winter “contact” sports, with little to no interruption in the season or the safety of students.
We ask that you please consider the following:
• We believe that our student-athletes can safely participate in “contact” sports, including basketball, competitive cheer, and wrestling if we adhere to strict health and safety protocols, including daily health screenings, mask-wearing, effective daily sanitation protocols, and implementation of social-distancing practices when feasible outside of the competition space.
• We recognize that we can’t eliminate all risks. But as we’ve proven over the past five months, schools are very successful in mitigating risk through implementation of health and safety protocols.
• If we can do so safely, schools must take further steps to assure the social and
emotional well-being of students. This has stood out among the biggest challenges
encountered by schools and families during the pandemic. Student participation in these activities will make a huge positive difference in their social and emotional health.
• We recognize that attendance of fans at competitions must be strictly limited in order to minimize the risk of COVID spread. We are not opposed to disallowing fans at competitions at this time if it is necessary to allow students to compete.
• If there is data/evidence from states that have moved before us showing that resuming contact sports under strict protocols is not safe, then please share it widely. We have not seen any such evidence.
With the support and guidance of the MHSAA, our district is ready to safely resume all winter sports activities. And, most importantly, our student-athletes are ready. They are relying on us to take action with their best interest in mind. And they are relying on us to provide for improved levels of engagement and involvement that they so desperately need.
We want to work with you to make this happen. Please let us know if there is any information or other assistance we can provide to help move us forward. Our district respectfully asks that you take the necessary steps to allow all winter sports seasons to proceed immediately.
River Valley School District
CC: Gretchen Whitmer, Governor
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, MDHHS Chief Medical Executive and Chief Deputy Director