The clock has run out, it is time for the kids to play

Game point. The crowd is on their feet, rhythmically echoing “SCOREBOARD” throughout Phil Roark gymnasium that is so effortlessly pumping with intensity and excitement. Athletes nervously share looks of anticipation, praying this point will work out in their favor. The ball is served, passed, set, hit — the point is won and the Giants win! Students storm the court chanting “THIS IS OUR HOUSE” as our Marin Catholic rivals slink out the doors.

This was the moment I had been dreaming of for the fall volleyball season of my senior year since my very first Redwood volleyball game. This was the opportunity many senior athletes lost last spring with the cancellation of all high school sports due to the pandemic. This is the reality that could potentially unfold in 2021 unless we decide to cancel sports. After several delays, with the most recent one pushing the start date from Dec. 7 to Jan. 1, 2021, it is imperative that commencement is no longer shrugged off.

I’m writing this article with clear intent. I want to play my senior season so much it physically hurts. But this article is not solely divulging my personal wants in the midst of a national pandemic, because that would be ridiculous. My feelings are shared by so many more student-athletes that it is necessary to at least try to fight for the right to play because, for most, it is more than just a game. I’m speaking on behalf of the current 8 million high school athletes in the U.S.

Besides the obvious physical benefits of playing sports, such as obesity reduction, creating healthy habits for adulthood fitness and increased dopamine release, potentially the most important benefits attributed to sports are mental ones. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, physical activity in general is associated with improved academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores. Sports can also affect students’ attitudes, including enhanced motivation, increased concentration and improved classroom behavior. Additionally, high school athletes are more likely to attend college than non-athletes, and the odds are further increased for team captains, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The positive effects of playing sports are seemingly endless, leading many to wonder about the negative implications of their absence and those wondering should be worried. A study conducted by a team of physicians, child health experts and researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found that, since the cancellation of high school sports, approximately 68 percent of student-athletes within the survey reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would typically require medical intervention; this is 37 percent higher than the rates seen in the previous year. Furthermore, the study noted that physical activity levels have dropped nearly 50 percent since the start of the pandemic and quality-of-life scores were lower than researchers had ever found in similar studies.

Personally, I know two volleyball players who have committed suicide in this time period, one of whom was merely 13 years old and the other was 17 and a good friend of mine. The devastating loss of their lives confirmed for me what I already had been assuming to be true; we have become so focused on the physical safety of our communities that we’ve completely lost sight of the mental health damages we are causing. As students, we have been dragged into a number of assemblies throughout our school careers in which a speaker would preach that mental health is just as important as physical health. Administrators, teachers and other staff members alike would nod their heads in agreement. But now that that notion is truly being put to the test, student-athletes are being scoffed at and told that we are being selfish. We have complacently let go of our sports since March. By the time the ‘fall’ season is supposed to start, it will have been over nine months of putting student-athletes on the back burner. 

Here’s the thing: it is possible to maintain a COVID-19 safe environment while simultaneously allowing for high school sports to commence. It’s been done in 46 other states to at least some degree, according to Max Preps, and it’s even happening right now in Marin County with numerous club sports. In my own case, my volleyball club, Absolute, was able to remain open from May to December without a single COVID-19 contraction due to its intensive safety regulations, which include mandatory masks, consistent temperature testing and thorough facility cleaning and is only closing due to the recent mandated lockdown. Although some may argue these very clubs are a sufficient substitute for lost high school seasons, it is imperative to recognize the inherent inequity of club sports. Costing thousands of dollars each year, many families cannot afford clubs, especially with the added financial stress of the pandemic. Additionally, many sports, like cross country, for example, do not have true club teams, so high school sports remain crucial for most athletes.

As a community, we can do better for both our at-risk members and our children. We are at the point where doing better can no longer be a hope –– it is mandatory. Come January, high school sports must begin.