Right now, there’s no telling whether the #LetThemPlay campaign, aimed at getting kids back onto courts and fields and into gyms and pools, will be enough to convince the powers-that-be.
There’s no doubt, though, that it is catchy – or that it is something we’re going to be hearing a lot more this year as parents, coaches and kids try to straddle the line between caution and courage.
In a year of ever-moving goalposts and worrisome scientific data, youth sports – like professional sports – have been stymied at almost every turn, despite evidence that safety and tournaments can coexist happily. We have seen great examples of safe tournaments, including the AAU Junior Nationals Volleyball Championship, the Heartland Fall Friendlies soccer tournament, the AAU Junior Olympics and three National Travel Basketball Association (NTBA) Championships – all of which took precautions seriously, and came out ahead.
Many states, however, continue to put the kibosh on matches, tournaments and even scrimmages. And it’s starting to look like people have had enough.
The #LetThemPlay hashtag was being shared wildly on social media, according to the app, Talkwalker. More than 10,000 conversations had included it in less than a week, with more than 43,000 engagements. Need more? It had the potential to reach 2.3 billion.
And whether or not it changes things, it’s being heard nationwide – in increasing volume as youth athletes, their coaches – and their parents – march on administrators, demanding a re-think of conservative decisions made.
In Missouri, a crowd of more than 200 protested outside St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, demanding that youth sports restart. The crowd held signs and chanted “Let them play” at passersby Sunday while county police blocked the entrance to Page’s street.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the outcry from supporters of youth sports has grown markedly since last Wednesday, when Page announced that the county was loosening some guidelines but keeping restrictions on games and tournaments for teenagers and high-contact sports like football.
Additionally, parents at the protest said they disagreed with the county’s reasoning on stopping youth sports competition, while allowing bars and restaurants to stay open with restrictions.
Compounding the confusion is the fact that even the authorities have dissension in their ranks. The newspaper article notes that a local sports medicine task force, whose guidelines on reopening youth sports the Page administration has largely followed, has also questioned the county’s recent decisions. Its members said in a joint statement late last week that Page had misrepresented the risk of coronavirus spread in youth sports and hadn’t communicated well with doctors on the task force.
“No one is advocating being unsafe. But parents and individual students want to have the right to make their own choices,” said Doug Stockenberg of Des Peres, whose daughter plays volleyball at Parkway South High.
In Connecticut, hundreds gathered outside the state capitol to protest the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference’s decision to cancel youth football for the year, saying it was “too risky” and that players could transmit COVID-19 in almost every aspect of the game.
Last week, the CIAC said it would work to come up with a solution that might mitigate some of the risks, but any plan would not include 11-on-11 games. The Department of Public Health said it would be willing to look at any new proposals from the CIAC. Gov. Ned Lamont said that he would like to see a football season possibly played in February and March and that he would be willing to sit down with the Department of Public Health and football leagues to discuss it; in a recent interview, he called for a meeting between DPH and the CIAC to be held.
In some cases, groundswells of support for the movement have given rise to organizations. Let Them Play MN is one of these. The group, formed in August, has nearly 12,000 members and frequently posts updates and messages of support.
"As parents, our goal is to assume all responsibility and all risk," said Dawn Gillman, Co-founder, told KARE-TV.
The Minnesota State High School League has postponed fall football and volleyball until the spring, shortening their seasons, which for many parents and students is somewhat problematic, given the weather.
"Frozen ground, it snows …middle of April it could be snowing, and in the state of Minnesota, there’s a law that you cannot play on frozen ground," said Gillman.
For some of the student athletes, this decision seems unfair with recruiting efforts for colleges at stake.
"That's what it sounded like if we were to play in the spring anyways so why not try and do it now ... keep it as original as we can," said Garrett Savard, a senior on the football team at Lakeville South High School.
The concern of student athletes who could miss out on recruiting – and thus, on athletic scholarships – is one of the driving concerns. (In some cases, it has convinced parents to move across state lines, taking their children where rules are less conservative and where athletes will have the chance to play).
New York is one of the states where students can’t compete and the #LetThemPlay movement is loud and proud there, according to news from LoHud, which covered a rally to protest the New York State Public High School Athletic Association's decision to move football, volleyball, and cheerleading to March 1, 2021.
"It's very frustrating," said Somers sophomore lineman Jake Polito, about seeing neighboring states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania play football. "I have friends in all those states, and they love letting us know that they're playing, and we're not."
And Polito, as well as others, are skeptical that the state will live up to its end of the promise. (According to the governor's office, a reevaluation to allow "higher risk" sports to compete would happen no later than Dec. 31).
"I’m not sure if we’re gonna get a football and lacrosse season in," Albany lacrosse commit and Somers senior T.J. Deagan said. "It's just stressful to think that we might not have a season."
Michigan parent Jayme McElvaney told MLive.com that the #LetThemPlay movement is as important a lesson as good sportsmanship.
“The worst thing is that’s what we’re teaching our kids. ‘Sit down, be quiet and obey.’ When my son said to me ‘That’s cute that you’re (supporting the cause), but it’s not going to help,’ that made me want to fight harder. What we should be telling our kids is ‘If there is something you believe in, you must speak up.’ If nobody does, we’re in a lot of trouble.”
Those who doubt the power of an organic protest campaign would do well to remember that when Boston, against the wishes of its residents, was named the candidate city to host the Summer Games, a little group calling itself #NoBostonOlympics took on those powers-that-be. It ultimately became such a vociferous force that a very red-faced USOC had to withdraw its bid and submit Los Angeles instead. Not bad for a group that Boston's Mayor, Marty Walsh, originally dismissed as "ten idiots on Twitter."
Oh, and by the way, #NoBostonOlympics took its show on the road and successfully gave lessons to Rome and Hamburg's residents - who also found the prospect of a Games distasteful. At the end of their crusade, the principals in the effort wrote a book about their experiences. You can buy No Boston Olympics: How and Why Smart Cities are Passing on the Torch on Amazon. Just in case #LetThemPlay needs a mentor.