Student athletes, school officials implore state to reinstate sports, but some lawmakers say 'safety is a top priority'

MHSAA: No constitutional right to play prep sports
Posted at 8:57 AM, Jan 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-29 09:12:34-05

LANSING, Mich. — Stacy Johnson will never forget the looks on her students' faces last Friday after they learned that the pause on high school winter contact sports had been extended to late February.

READ MORE: MHSAA: Winter contact sports remain sidelined by recent MDHHS order

Johnson, who’s the superintendent for Britton Deerfield Schools, remembered her business manager coming to her door and saying, "Stacy, there are kids out here--a lot of kids."

So, she went to the door.

“The next few minutes had a profound impact on me. There, outside my office, were high school students from all grade levels. They weren’t violent or disruptive. They were just standing there staring at me broken,” Johnson said during her testimony to the Michigan Senate. “Scholars, band members, basketball players, drama students, choir members, they came to ask me one question: 'Mrs. Johnson, why? Why is this happening to us?’”

She told the Michigan Senate Committee of Education and Career Readiness that students were disappointed because they’d followed the state’s rules, worn masks, got tested, only to be rejected. "'Why should I even come to school?'" she remembered one student saying, "'This is stupid and no one cares about us.'"

However, Johnson said she cared. It’s why she gave her testimony Thursday morning before the committee.

Jayme McElvany, Michigan director of Let Them Play, said she cared, too.

“I got a message the other day from a mom saying she was currently holding her 6-foot--” said Jayme McElvany with tears in her eyes. “--her 6’2” son on her lap as he was crying over the exhaustion from the emotional roller coaster that we are putting these kids through.”

After a few students testified, the Senate voted to adopt a resolution imploring Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to allow high school winter contact sports to resume immediately.

Then, across the street, at the House building, testimonies continued, beginning with a representative of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, who said 200,000 kids and nearly 500,000 people in total were impacted by the pause.

“Myself and my colleagues across the state tell our kids, ‘Hang in there, stay ready, control what you can control.’ We tell them to take care of each other and keep spirit and hope alive. That’s what we do in school sports,” said MHSAA's John Thompson to the House Oversight Committee. “Privately, I ask myself, 'How many times will Lucy pull the ball out from Charlie Brown?' In the comic strip, I know the answer. It’s every time. But, our kids aren’t a comic strip. They deserve better.”

Coopersville High School senior Ethan Coady also spoke about the positive impact that playing basketball has had on his mental health and well-being, a common theme shared by other student-athletes at the hearings.

“For me, basketball has been an escape from the world around me, from all of the negative things going on in this world,” said Coady, who organized a rally for Saturday regarding the pause. “It’s a time when you put your shoes on and go out there with some of your best friends and compete.”

Democrats agreed that mental and emotional benefits of playing sports and the camaraderie that it brings is tremendous. However, they had concerns about people’s physical health and well-being.

“It depresses me all the things I can’t do. I own a restaurant, and it bums me out that my restaurant's closed. It depresses me that I can’t go to movies. There’s lots of depression in the community,” said Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids). “But I assume you are aware that first all of [University of Michigan] has closed down all of its sports activities because of this new variant. Second of all, that the current projections are that this will be the dominant variant in Michigan within a couple of months because this variant spread so fast.”

LaGrand wore rubber gloves and a respirator during the hearing because he said he wanted to protect his family, some of whom had been vaccinated. He added that the second variant is known to be deadlier than the first, and it may be too risky to have student athletes play or gather with this new one growing in Michigan.

“Let me just be transparent: I’m a mom of a student-athlete. My son went and won state championships in football. So I get it,” said Rep. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit). “I know how important this is to you guys. But with this new variant can we just perhaps take a little more time to find out how that’s affecting our young people?”

Young suggested collecting more data and possibly prioritizing the youth getting vaccinated before resuming sports.

Rep. Julie Brixie (D-Meridian Township) expressed the same concerns saying that the new variant is incredibly contagious and that their focus right now is on reopening schools more than extracurricular activities.

"I think that one of the challenges we’re facing is that the partisan politics have gotten in the way of schools reopening,” Brixie said during an interview after the hearings were over. “Right now the governor’s proposed a supplemental budget that would help our schools open up and help things resume to some sort of normalcy, and it’s being held up for partisan reasons. They’re holding it hostage until she opens things up. You can’t put the cart before the horse.”

Rep. Brixie said she understands that the pause is hard on everyone, especially the student-athletes. She played sports, and her kids too. However, she noted that thousands of people have died from COVID in Michigan. So they’re doing everything they can to ensure that no one faces the same fate.

“We have people who are vulnerable. We have lost over 14,000 people in this state from this terrible disease,” Rep. Brixie said. “It’s impacting certain communities more than others, and communities of color are impacted at a much greater rate. We have to consider everyone’s safety, and that’s very important to me.”

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