Why bring back athletics?

Why was it ever taken from us? 

That’s the spectrum we live in now. The absence of sports is a glaring reminder of what COVID-19 has done to the world. Spring seasons were canceled. Youth sports were put on indefinite hold.

The loss of sports served as a catalyst for many, including myself, to taking the coronavirus seriously.

On Wednesday, March 11, I drove to Pittsburg to cover a Labette Community College softball game. It was a day before the Parsons High School boys basketball team was scheduled to play in the state tournament in Salina. I’d spent all week analyzing the tournament and how the Vikings would fare without injured point guard Dariq Williams. A doubleheader 45 minutes away that started before noon was an opportunity for me to get away, be outside and simply cover a game. 

A few hours later, I spent the drive home digesting news of the NCAA deciding to hold March Madness with no fans. Later that night, the NBA suspended its season after Rudy Gobert, a star center for the Utah Jazz, tested positive for the coronavirus shortly before his team tipped off against the Oklahoma City Thunder. That was the shot heard ‘round the world. 

KSHSAA went on with its state basketball tournaments for one more day and I made the trip north to Salina, where Parsons was upset on that Thursday by Rose Hill. 

A few hours after the Vikings had their hearts broken, KSHSAA canceled the rest of the state tournaments. That was the last day athletics around the state took place.

I woke up Wednesday morning to cover a softball game. By Friday morning, sports around the nation had come to a complete stop. 

Since then, we’ve wondered when and how sports will be brought back. In Kansas, as Governor Laura Kelly has implemented her plan to reopen the economy, a clearer timeline has emerged.

KSHSAA has said that schools can hold summer workouts starting on June 1. Any district’s plan to hold workouts needs local county health department approval and there will be safety protocols in place to maintain social distancing and other COVID-19 guidelines.

Parsons High School Athletic Director Rob Barcus said that Parsons will stagger its workouts into various sessions, hold more workouts outside to limit the number of kids in the building and constantly sanitize workout areas. 

“I’ve been in education my whole life and I can’t imagine a scenario of school where extracurricular activities aren’t a part of it,” Barcus said. “Whether it’s choir, football, orchestra or any of those things.” 

Labette County High School Athletic Director Sean Price, who’s also the school’s football coach, will take similar measures while focusing on slowly acclimating students back to physical activity.

“Our kids went two months without doing anything,” Price said. “Every school I’m sure sent at-home workouts, but it’s not the same as being in the building. We’ll be cautious with bringing them back and start with a slow pace. I think the kids will be excited to just get out.”

The local Parsons Babe Ruth League is taking a litany of steps in its pursuit of having a modified season this summer. Fans will likely be separated and spread out throughout the fence rather than penned into the bleachers as part of a variety of measures. 

But registration numbers are way down for the Parsons Babe Ruth League this year by roughly half as two factions are seeming to emerge. One one side, there are parents and kids ready to resume athletics. The other side isn’t ready to take on the risk.

So why go through all the hassle? Why is the Parsons Babe Ruth League willing to make endless concessions to try and have a season? Why are high school coaches willing to put in so much extra work for limited workouts?

The answers to those questions lie in the willingness to take on risk … or one’s aversion to it. 

The blunt truth is that, without a vaccine, any school or league that holds athletics will take on some form of risk. 

For two months, many have been confined to their homes and apartments. Others have worked essential jobs and kept the economy moving on the frontlines.

Adults that have worked essential jobs like grocery store clerks, restaurant workers and others have exposed themselves to risk while still working low-income jobs. Their kids need the opportunities athletics, and other extracurricular activities, provide. 

In Kansas, according to the latest Kansas Department of Health and Environment numbers, blacks and hispanics have experienced cases of COVID-19 cases at rates three-to-nine times higher than that of whites. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, minorities were less likely to be able to work at home. 

Throughout Kansas, people aged 18-64 account for 82.6% of cases — that’s your traditional workforce. 

The middle-aged workforce, particularly minorities, have gotten acclimated to risk over the last two months. It’s easy to see why they might crave athletics. Their kids are the ones that need the opportunities sports provide. 

It’s also easy to see why those who have had more security over the last two months are more averse to it.

“I think people want to return to the normal we knew before,” Barcus said. “The structure of practice or a place to go after school brings back some normalcy.”

School districts, colleges and youth leagues will take every precaution to mitigate that risk in the coming months. But it won’t be zero.

There is continued risk to the absence of athletics, too. Sports serve as a vehicle for kids to get a college degree. They provide structure in environments that are otherwise unstable. That’s why athletics exist and why its continued absence causes its own set of challenges.

The curve of the coronavirus is flattening. On Tuesday, Kelly announced that the state will move into a modified Phase 2 of her reopening plan on Friday. The Phase Out portion of her plan, tentatively scheduled for June 22, will lift virtually all restrictions on athletics, although counties and cities will likely have their own restrictions last beyond that point. 

Sports opened our eyes to the seriousness of this pandemic. Sports will also serve as a litmus test for returning society to a sense of familiarity.

Tournaments and games with densely packed fans isn’t what the world needs right now as that could lead to a resurgence of the coronavirus. But the toll of the ongoing absence of athletics is starting to be steep. 

How we balance safety with the need for opportunity and structure will come down to how administrators, athletes and parents assess risk. 

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