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.
The coronavirus pandemic may have caused the postponement of high school sports throughout the DMV, but it hasn’t stopped some youth football programs from pushing forward with their seasons.
Over the span of the last month, the D.C. State Athletic Association, Virginia High School League and Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association have each adjusted their respective athletic calendars due to COVID-19 concerns, with hopes of returning to play toward the start of the new year for traditional winter sports, and spring for fall competitions.
Youth football, though, is not tethered to the authority of such organizations. In Maryland and Virginia, individual counties establish their own safety protocols with respect to the given recovery phase, as is determined by the Governor’s office. The same is in accordance with decrees from the mayor in Washington. As a result, contact, equipment and tackling is prohibited in most counties but allowed in others, thus opening the door for some coaches to attempt to provide their student athletes with a hint of normalcy in an otherwise unfamiliar time.
“Football has always been a great outlet, specifically for the kids here in the DMV,” Maryland Heat president and head coach Terrence Byrd said. “It helps them maintain structure to their lives. They learn to pattern their behavior, do their school work, do their homework, then come to practice. It builds discipline.”
Byrd’s Maryland Heat is one of the more prominent youth programs in the region. Over the span of his career, Byrd has won two national championships and his team is annually ranked amongst the best in the country. While at practice this summer, his team has adhered to Prince George’s County safety guidelines: Social distancing, no equipment, coaches in mask and the wiping down of balls. But regarding the decision to play, Byrd says it’s bigger than the game itself.
“I have a daughter who is a senior in high school. This would’ve been her fourth year on the varsity cheerleading team, and this is a huge blow for her. It’s a huge blow socially and a huge blow emotionally. I get to see firsthand what happens when a kid’s life is disrupted,” Byrd said.
“There are kids out here fighting depression, so for the young men entrusted to me, my spirit tells me to push forward as long as we can and as long it makes sense so that these young men can stay engaged with their friends. From a social development standpoint, these guys can’t get these years back.”
One of the student athletes thankful to be on the field is lineman Freddie Simmons, who said being back with his teammates helps make other restrictions easier to deal with.
“It means the world to be out here (at practice) because not that many kids have this opportunity [right now],” Simmons said. “I’m extremely blessed to be on this team. I love my coaches, I love my brothers. We [are] like a family.”
Despite the positives associated with returning to the field, the reality of the situation is the worst of COVID-19 may be yet to come. Recent reports are shedding light upon myocarditis, a heart condition linked to the virus that could negatively impact student athletes. Also, though hospitalizations are down, the DMV has seen a rise in cases in recent months, specifically in young people.
Though children do not typically experience severe symptoms from the virus and are often asymptomatic, they are thought to contract and transmit it to others at a similar rate. Factors that give DCSAA director Clark Ray reason to pause.
“As someone who is a parent of four, the virus doesn’t differentiate between the haves and the have-nots,” Ray said. “The virus is an invisible force that we have to deal with, so there is a public health emergency in the District of Columbia and the United States. There’s a public health emergency for all.”
Ray is not alone in his concern. President of the Bowie Boys and Girls club, Kevin Holmes, also grappled with the risk associated with the virus. Holmes traditionally fields multiple teams in the fall. This season, he chose not to.
“This is one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make in my 20 years doing this. I just don’t want to be that guy, that team, that club that even gave the appearance of putting sport before the kid, especially since it affects our black communities more than others,” Holmes said. “My greatest fear is a child contracting COVID, getting sick and dying, and I didn’t do all I could to prevent it. I don’t want to be someone who had good intentions but did something the wrong way and end up hurting my community.”
Holmes agrees that youth of the DMV need social and athletic opportunities but believes there are other methods to deliver to the same results.
“It’s about creativity. We can still provide situations and opportunities for kids in football, even if we don’t put them in dangerous situations. Let’s not do what we’ve always done -- let’s do what we’ve never done and still provide opportunity,” Holmes said.
As is the case at the high school level, seemingly everyone wants to do right by the youth, but the definition of right is in the hands of the beholder.