Playing Through COVID
No area of society has gone untouched by the novel coronavirus pandemic, including sports. After every level of athletics was rocked by the virus and forced to shut down in the spring, professional leagues have figured out ways to return to their fields of play in as safe a manner as possible. Meanwhile, decisions are still being made on the collegiate, high school and youth levels about when and how sports will return.
In our Playing Through COVID series, NBC Sports Washington will tell the story of those decisions and how they impact the people involved, including athletes, coaches, parents and more.
Part of the job for a high school coach is to put their athletes in the best positions to succeed, and that’s off the field as much as on the field. So, when it became clear the coronavirus pandemic would sideline sports this fall, it didn’t simply mean one less thing for coaches to worry about. In fact, the level of things they had to consider increased.
Coaches instead had to ponder the ramifications of postponements and cancellations, not only on their personal lives but also for their players. Those concerns range from the obvious impact on the potential recruitment of players with aspirations to play in college to the not so obvious impact on their mental health, and everything in between.
In D.C. and Virginia, fall sports have been postponed with plans to play in the spring. In Maryland, fall and winter sports are postponed with no start date announced as of yet. It’s been reported how that uncertainty makes it difficult for high school seniors to produce film for the consideration of college coaches, but it’s not the top recruits with Power Five conference and pro potential impacted the most. It’s the kids using their sport for an opportunity to go to college and continue their education, an opportunity they otherwise may not have had, Quince Orchard High School football coach John Kelley explained.
“Every once in a while there’s a kid who gets an offer from Maryland as a senior, or Florida State as a senior -- wasn’t on the radar, has a great senior year,” Kelley said. “But it’s more so the kid that’s gonna play football at Sheppard, at Frostburg, at IUP, maybe a Towson or Richmond, Stevenson, Bridgewater College. Just kids looking for opportunities to go to college and use football as that avenue. That’s what they’re gonna miss out on, unless the NCAA changes the evaluation period.”
Kelley said his kids were crushed by Montgomery’s initial announcement to cancel fall sports completely. He’s hoping the county and state can find a way for football to be played at some point this year because of the drive it provides his athletes with off the field.
“Athletics serve as a motivator, let’s be honest here,” Kelley said. “Athletics serve as a driving force, getting a lot of kids into school, and they serve as a driving force for kids to excel in the classroom, and emotionally. You take that away from people, that’s gonna have an effect.”
The emotional well-being of athletes can’t be overstated, as the thing that many of them find their purpose in, socialize through and exercise their minds and bodies with is ripped away. This is what concerns Wise High School coach DaLawn Parrish more than anything.
“I’m more worried about the psychological effect of kids, in general. Just, not being around each other, being social. The part that plays in it,” Parrish said. “Athletics is an outlet. I’m not so sure, thinking about college this, college that, everybody’s not going to college for sports just because you’re a senior. You know the numbers. It’s probably like three percent that gets a Div. I scholarship. So for me, it’s the psychological effect of just playing, just being around your peers, having the opportunity one year to represent your school, and things of that nature. That’s what I’m very, very concerned with.”
Parrish noted that fall athletes won’t be the first to feel the effects of the pandemic. Recent graduate-athletes had their spring seasons canceled when the COVID-19 outbreak first hit. Montgomery Blair High School girls’ soccer coach Robert Gibb, who started the boys lacrosse program at the school and is still very much involved with the sport, saw first-hand how that impacted those players.
“There’s no way to give them that season back, the way things played out in the spring,” Gibb said. “There’s nothing they can do, and it was too bad. And I think our school and a lot of other schools tried to do everything that they could to sort of try to make them feel as good as they could. I think both of our lacrosse teams played one official game, maybe two. And so that was all they got.”
With the pandemic continuing to impact sports as the new school year gets underway, Gibb is hoping a solution arises that allows his soccer team to have some type of activity before the year is over -- even if it’s not a full athletic season.
“Probably one of the closest-knit group of kids that I’ve had in a long, long time. So yeah, it hurts, the fact that they may not get to have this together,” Gibb said. “A lot of these girls have been together since elementary school and have played on other teams outside of school. So, yeah, I’m hoping against hope that maybe the county will reconsider and that maybe things will get good enough that maybe we can at least do something. I know that maybe going all the way to having state tournaments and all that other stuff may be too extended and too complicated, and since it’s people from different jurisdictions, even at that time it may be kind’ve sketchy. But even if we can have a county season or something, a smaller county season of course, I would love that and I know the players would if that’s safe and it’s something that could be figured out.”