It’s High Time We Stand Up, Champion for Student Athletes

By Ray Gallagher
Examiner Sports Editor
@Directrays

The buzz word being used by Section 1 football coaches during the 2021 spring phase of the coronavirus pandemic is “Advocate”. Mahopac High football Coach Dominick DeMatteo has been a strong proponent of the notion of not just advocating, but tirelessly plotting, to salvage a spring high school football season in NYS for the Class of 2021-22, like much of the rest of the country did recently, and successfully, in the fall of 2020. 

Like so many football coaches in and around NYS, DeMatteo knows the time for action is now, and he remains at the forefront of the social-media-driven agenda. Respected voices like DeMatteo, John Jay Coach Jimmy Clark, Byram Hills Coach Doug Carpenter and the rest of the Section1 Football Coaches Association, understand that if football coaches, players and parents sit around waiting for NYS Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make a decision regarding “high risk” sports — like football — is akin to a death sentence.

The hashtag #TimeToAdvocate is trending throughout the state as Section 1 and NYSPHSAA football coaches begin to form advocacy groups — among their internal administrators, players and parents — designed to trigger local politicians to do the right thing regarding our student athletes, who, perhaps, have suffered emotionally more than most since COVID-19 blew up in March and then reignited in the winter months while, coincidentally, influenza has all but disappeared.

Is it political? Who knows for sure. Is COVID-19 real? Yes, of course! But can we work around it in an effort to #LetThePlay again? Studies suggest we can, and must, in order to get our athletes out of the current funk they find themselves in.

According to NCAA.org, the recently-released NCAA Student-Athlete COVID-19 Well-being Study was designed to examine the impact of the COVID-19 on student-athletes’ current physical and mental well-being. The survey was designed by NCAA Research in collaboration with the NCAA Sport Science Institute and the three national SAAC governing bodies. Over 37,000 student-athletes responded to the survey, spanning the three divisions, all sports and athletics conferences. 

Section 1 football coaches are advocating for a plan that might enable Jack Kaiser’s Somers Tuskers to face rival Yorktown in spring of 2021.

Remember, the amount of variables we are dealing with are insurmountable, thus clouding the facts. Here are some of their findings: A majority of participants reported experiencing high rates of mental distress since the outset of the pandemic. Over a third reported experiencing sleep difficulties, more than a quarter reported feeling sadness and a sense of loss, and one in 12 reported feeling so depressed it has been difficult to function, “constantly” or “most every day.”

Unfortunately, four of five athletes surveyed indicated that both local regulations and a lack of access to appropriate facilities were barriers to athletics training. Other emotional barriers included a fear of exposure to COVID-19 (43%), lack of motivation (40%), feelings of stress or anxiety (21%), and sadness or depression (13%).

So, what’s worse? Keeping our athletes in a bubble under lockdown, restricted to XBox tantrums in their bedrooms for much of day, while depression and a lack of physicality wreaks internal havoc, or exposing them to the 5-6% chance (way less among youths) of contracting COVID-19 — while recovering in a matter of days? Simultaneously, we can limit exposure to grandma and grandpa and others with comorbidities by steering clear until we get past this.

DeMatteo has met with the Section 1 grid coaches and recently met with Section 9 coaches to activate a plan that they hope can initiate a spring football season in 2021. The hope is to combine the effort between programs, players and communities throughout the state to send a very powerful, yet professional message to NYS leaders; that NYS coaches and those within their programs can do what surrounding states like New Jersey have already done, having played football cautiously and safely throughout the fall and winter of 2020.

“At this time there is no definitive timeline for authorization of “high-risk” sports to resume competition,” said Dr. Robert Zayas, Executive Director of NYSPHSAA. “We’ll continue working with state officials and our member schools to determine when it is safe to compete. Low and moderate (risk) sports can begin as previously authorized by
the state.”

People are growing despondent. Again, here’s another example of “wait and see”, followed by another indefinite postponement before ultimately ending hope with an 11th-hour cancellation, which is the number one reason to advocate NOW before it falls on deaf ears.

“There seems to be some major communication breakdowns between political leaders regarding high school sports,” said Coach Carpenter, a Brewster resident and former player at John Jay CR. “Coaches and parents have been asking for answers to legitimate questions from politicians for quite some time now, and those questions remained unanswered. School districts in Section 1 are the best in the country and have done a fantastic job with keeping kids safe with in-person learning and the sports that were played in the fall. We need to reach out to the local political leaders that represent us as New York citizens to finally get answers.”

Futures are at stake here. Student athletes who had their seasons cancelled and/or postponed — from football to cheer — have their livelihoods on the line, their academic and potential career choices in jeopardy, not to mention their physical and emotional
well being. It’s time they stood up, alongside their parents, coaches and administrators to demand a safe process to #LetThem
Play again.

Everyone involved is begging state officials to please come to an agreement with school districts to allow student athletes to play “high-risk” sports, which haven’t been proven to actually be “high-risk” by any measure of science or factual data. 

“Our Advocacy Plan is an attempt to effectively advocate on behalf of our student-athletes to our NYS Representatives, Senators and Assemblymen (County Executives) for the opportunity to engage in interscholastic athletics,” said DeMatteo, a former player at Roosevelt High.

Section 1 Athletic Directors are prepared to offer a safe playing environment with protocols in place to accomplish this. NYS has been on the sidelines watching everyone else compete, so now it’s time for New York to become leaders, to do what’s right for our student athletes, to join the endorsement for sports to be played cautiously yet safely.

“It would mean a lot to student athletes across the state,” Somers All-NYS senior RB/LB Jack Kaiser said. “We have been playing with our friends since the fourth grade and our senior season was supposed to be special. Athletes need this season for recruiting badly just as much as they need it emotionally. 

“We have been teased and told that we were going to play all year and the athletes are emotionally drained from it,” Kaiser added, “especially all of the seniors, as it is their last season of high school football. Frustration grows as we see surrounding states play and have success with their seasons and the recruiting process. This whole delay of sports has put a lot of stress on athletes and a spring season would help us a lot.”

What would help a lot is some vigilant direction on behalf of student athletes, stemming from the top of the NYSPHSAA food chain and throughout all levels of our political leadership. There are things that can be done; start by reclassifying lacrosse from high to moderate risk to throw laxers a bone and let them join baseball and softball on the field this spring. Finish by initiating a plan that enables “high-risk” sports like football, basketball and cheer to begin training for an abbreviated season in March, with limited fans and strict protocols; much like they have done in bordering New Jersey.

At the very least, the decision to compete in athletics should be made locally, allowing for each school entity to decide whether to proceed with a high-risk sports plan and which sports to sponsor, not by some political paper shuffler in Albany #LetThemPlay.

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