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MOORE: My job depends on high school sports, and I still don’t think they should be played

In a public, four-plus hour Zoom meeting this week, the school board and superintendent in my home district discussed many important issues.

One stuck with me while lying in bed a few hours later.

On the two days a week my 6-year-old daughter goes to school, can she have class outside? It’s a simple question with a not-so-simple answer.

In the world of social distancing, it’s safer to have 20 first-graders sitting criss-cross applesauce, six feet apart, in the fresh air. But for security reasons, teachers can’t just see the sun and decide to move outdoors.  

What happens if there’s a school shooting?

One month from now, if the PIAA’s pipe dream comes true, I will be starting my 15th season of high school football.

There is nothing we love more than fall Fridays. Each season, there are fewer folks who earn paychecks covering high school sports. None of us take that for granted.

In 36 days, our dwindling, but dedicated, staff should be banding together for our first 2020 Football Friday.

I don’t think it will happen.

And I don’t think it should happen.

As the son of a teacher, I’ve always had tons of respect for that profession. And with my evening schedule, I’ve had the good fortune to volunteer often in my kids’ classrooms. 

Until you’ve seen someone say “1-2-3, Eyes on Me” and have 22 sets of 5-year-old eyes snap around to respond “1-2, Eyes on You!”, it’s hard to fully appreciate.

Trying to act as a substitute teacher last spring — and usually serving as iPad tech support and short-order cook — moved me into the “pay teachers whatever they want” camp.

If we, as a society, cannot provide those teachers — not to mention our kids — with a safe environment to continue their work, then we should not be playing high school sports.

Period.

In that meeting Tuesday night, experts presented the best of a bad batch of options, all while facing truly life and death decisions.

My wife and I now get to choose whether we want our kids to stay home and learn on an iPad, or if we want them to mask up and head to school two days a week.

Angry parents logged on to ask “did you think of this?” or “what will you do if my kindergartener won’t wear his mask?”

I understand the frustration. I’m frustrated. We’re all tired. We’re all dreaming of our “normal” lives. 

I am one of the very lucky ones. I work nights, while my wife often works remotely. So I am exceptionally fortunate to not have childcare worries, or my own safety at work to worry about. 

So I am not going to join the chorus of stay-at-home parents on the Internet who think there are better options no one has thought of, or that a cyber charter school is the answer.

These administrators, teachers and board members are trying to make the best of an impossible situation that comes once in a lifetime (hopefully). 

And while my heart breaks for athletes who may miss another season, the musicians who won’t get to perform, and especially seniors who may lose a chance at a college scholarship, there is a reason they are called EXTRA-curricular activities.

In a time that’s forced us all to focus on what truly matters — to reduce things to their essentials — we need to prioritize the ‘curricular.’ Only one element of school is actually required by law: the part where you learn, in a classroom, from a trained teacher, five days a week.

And if that can’t happen without risking lives, then neither should high school sports.

There are two major reasons why high school sports shouldn’t return this fall. 

One is scientific, and the other is moral. 

For the scientific part, I listen to my wife. The latter is more my speed.

First: Outside of semi-solo sports like golf, tennis and cross country, there is a real risk to playing sports in the COVID era. 

My better half is a virologist with a Ph.D. in immunology, who creates vaccines in a lab that help fight cancer. So when she speaks about viruses (and, well, most other things), I’ve learned to shut up and listen.

She believes the well-thought out school plan for our two kids is worth the small risk, so they can get some semblance of normalcy, maintain their sanity and keep learning the amazing things you pick up in elementary school. 

But two teams of football players smashing their sweaty, slobbery faces into each other 100 times a night? Twenty-two soccer players going up for headers and spitting out mouthguards?

Sure, studies seem to indicate that children are less at-risk of major illness, and may even “catch” the virus at a much lower rate. But no one knows what the long-term effects are yet.

And what about the coaches they share the locker rooms with? 

Or the 70-year-old science teacher they see the next morning. 

Or the 65-year-old woman driving the bus idling in the parking lot. 

Or the parents and grandparents waiting for them back home? 

There is just no reason to risk all of that for sports. 

And this is coming from someone who may very well be out of a job in a sports-free world.

The second reason is less about science and more about a moral compass.

Pretend for a second you’re a high school principal, superintendent or school board member. 

Now, look a parent in the eye (on a Zoom meeting) and tell them the following things.

  • No, I can’t provide full-time education for your children.
  • No, I can’t guarantee their safety.
  • No, I can’t provide the full-time care you rely on to keep an essential job at the grocery store, factory or firehouse.
  • No, I don’t have money in the budget to reduce class size and guarantee social distancing.
  • Yes, the football team can practice every day and hop on a bus for a road game at Oxford.

It’s an unconscionable sell as an educator, administrator or even a parent.

No league or sport in this country has been able to protect its players yet, and each of those has one important thing that high school sports don’t: Money.

Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and others can afford thousands of tests for players and staff. They can buy out entire hotels to quarantine players. Private planes and medical care in case of emergency.

But it’s not just money that separates the big boys from the Friday Night-lighters. 

It’s a voice.

If Bryce Harper, Carson Wentz and pros with big contracts want to weigh the risks and make a decision, then so be it. If Joel Embiid is worried about the NBA’s protocols, he simply needs to tweet about it. The NBA players’ union would have his back.

But what about a high school quarterback with a sick grandmom? Or a lineman with an autoimmune disorder? Or a receiver who just does not feel safe enough?

Even at a “big” football school like Penn State, players don’t have a voice.

If they speak up, they will simply be replaced by a kid who is willing to play. The “warrior” mindset works when you’re trying to get over bumps and bruises from training camp. Not a deadly virus.

There will be no college sports played in Chester County this fall. All three NCAA schools have cancelled their seasons. 

But sure, let’s play high school soccer and field hockey.

My two kids want nothing more than to go back to school. I want nothing more than to send them. Selfishly, I want a break. 

Fortunately, they are young enough to hopefully look back on this in a few years and laugh, with most of their education still in front of them.

I know that isn’t the case for most high schoolers, especially the athletes, many of whom are depending on a scholarship as a ticket to college and a life better than their parents’. 

But in a world where full-time, in-person education is impossible, and we’re deciding between protecting first graders from a deadly virus or a school shooter, sports should be a non-starter.

To be frank, I’d take an even money bet that no student — my two included — sets foot in a Pennsylvania classroom before 2021.

The last few years, mid-July has marked the end of our “slow” summer season. It’s when we start planning our Pa. Prep Live Football Preview — the project I’m most proud of each calendar year.

Other than the kids who are actually strapping on the football pads, running through the grass, swinging clubs on the links or kicking a soccer ball, there is NO ONE who wants to see high school sports return more than I do.

My job quite literally depends on it. 

But, I don’t think it will happen.

And I don’t think it should.

Steven Moore is the sports editor of the Daily Local News and an editor for Pa. Prep Live. You can reach him at smoore@21st-centurymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @smoore1117.

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