Brennan: No easy answers for high school sports amid COVID

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Kyle Brennan

There are so many conflicting emotions when it comes to high school sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In many ways, it’s no different than these last six months have been.

As of the time when this story went to press Sept. 11, traditional 11-on-11 football was not scheduled to be played again until the fall of 2021. Volleyball apparently has the go-ahead to play as long as everyone in the gym wears masks. All other fall sports will attempt to go, albeit with some modifications.

Since the CIAC announced Sept. 4 that it could not sponsor 11-on-11 football due to the steadfast opposition by the state’s Department of Public Health, there have been rallies, Facebook groups, and social media outcry among players, coaches and parents. The anger is understandable for several reasons.

Obviously, first and foremost is the natural reaction to having the state’s most popular sport taken away — the latest of a seemingly endless list of casualties during this pandemic. Gone are Friday nights that are a staple of many communities. Potentially vanished are scores of scholarship opportunities for student-athletes who plan on using the sport as their vehicle to higher education. And we haven’t even mentioned the mental-health toll the cancelation will take on thousands of players.

There’s rightful anger to be levied against the CIAC, too. Sure, the organization was trying to avoid the unprecedented (although relatively short-lived) backlash it received when it abruptly canceled the remainder of the winter postseason at the start of the pandemic in March, but by kicking the can down the road for the fall season, it also provided false hope that in reality never stood a chance in this state.

There’s some angry bewilderment about why football is being singled out as providing the highest risk of any fall sport, while soccer has essentially been given a hall pass despite oftentimes featuring similar levels of contact.

Finally, there’s the overwhelming feeling that — and the expression couldn’t be more apropos — the goalposts of this pandemic keep being moved by those in positions of authority. Proponents of football (and further reopening of society) contend that since our state fairly successfully flattened the curve and maintains strong health metrics due to mask wearing and other steps, then we should be in position to at least give the sport a try.

I don’t know what the right answer is, although I cannot imagine any scenario at this point in which 11-on-11 football happens this fall.

I’ve felt all along that the return-to-sports discussion has been a moot point. A prerequisite for playing is the maintenance of at least hybrid learning at schools, and as we’ve already seen with Naugatuck High’s temporary closure due to its first COVID-19 case, that standard will be almost impossible to maintain for any meaningful duration.

In conversations with people involved with high school sports, we were mostly in agreement — the CIAC’s delay of the fall sports season was probably to allow time for schools to experience virus-related shutdowns and essentially let the virus, not the CIAC, cancel fall sports. It still feels like that’s a distinct possibility, unfortunately.

The COVID-19 pandemic is real and still does not have an end in sight. I try to use the critical thinking skills that I encourage my students at Nonnewaug High School to employ — seek reliable evidence, weigh a variety of opinions and conclusions while considering their potential biases and motives, and attempt to draw your own conclusions based on research and values.

I keep coming back to one argument, one that I made on Twitter when football was canceled — the mental health of 100% of high school students is being damaged in exchange for a 99.4% (by the CDC’s latest estimate) COVID-19 survival rate.

I don’t know how to reconcile those two numbers, and I guess that’s for everyone to decide on his or her own (not that we really get a say, anyways). Should a society be willing to accept a certain level of pandemic-related casualties so the vast majority doesn’t have to suffer? What is the end game with all of this, anyways? I don’t know the answers to either of those questions.

But I do know that I won’t dare tell high schoolers that they should “see the big picture” or “suck it up” or “toughen up because life isn’t fair” or “the pandemic doesn’t care about your feelings.”

The repeated losses these high school students continue to suffer are the likes of which none of us can comprehend. They’ve lost the time, experiences and memories they deserve — and those that we all got — with their friends, classmates and teammates, and they are damn well entitled to their feelings of anger, grief and disillusionment.

I feel for all of you. Hang in there.

Kyle Brennan is a contributing sportswriter to the Citizen’s News. Reach him at kylebrennan1@yahoo.com.