Among the many emails and social media responses that flowed my way last weekend after a column insisting high school football was too much of a public risk to play this fall, one question gnawed at me.
“Why would you want to take away the kids’ hope?”
My piece was meant to be provocative in parts, especially toward those who, against all data, still come close to denying there is any pandemic. There was one line, tongue planted so firmly in my cheek that it bled: Call me a card-carrying communist and unpatriotic alarmist, but …
There was a line that maybe I care about your kids more than some of you care about mine. And there was another that, yes, I’d love to see high school football. I love your kids more. Provocative pieces bring reactions.
The CIAC had just announced its plan, fluid to be sure, that a delayed season would include all sports. This means football, which the National Federation of State High School Associations puts on its high-risk list, is still on. The emails were 70 percent in support of my view. The public comments on Twitter and in the comments section at the end of the column were 90 percent against. It is often that way.
“No Jeff Jacob’s u dont love my kids more ! You love ur politics more!!”
“Has this dude ever written a positive column on anything?”
“Dr. Jacobs …”
“Comrade Softy, NOBODY asked you.”
Sorry to disappoint, but those jewels don’t even bruise the skin. More considered criticism, though, can penetrate. I have one abiding rule on arguments: Nothing is 100 percent except the final numbers on the scoreboard and the ballot you fill in on election day. Everything else is up for debate, everything else is gray.
The words that stopped me were the ones citing recent studies that show a rise in anxiety and depression among high school athletes with the cancellation of sports. The words that stopped me were the heartfelt ones from parents whose children either lost their senior season last spring or could lose their autumn season this senior year. And, of course, that question a number of people asked: Why take the kids’ hope away? Why kill hope?
I called Danbury football coach Augustine Tieri.
I called Western Connecticut professor of psychology Shane Murphy, who was head of sport psychology for 7 1/2 years with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
I called Richard Hanley, associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac and former chair of the Quinnipiac Athletics Council.
Voices from three different areas of expertise to answer this: Is it incumbent on journalists to provide hope even if facts lead them to a dissenting opinion? Is giving hope to high school kids part of a sports columnist’s job description?
“Oh, no,” Hanley said. “Hope is not part of the journalistic portfolio. Hope is a wish. Journalists deal with facts as they are, not as people may wish them to be. In the case of biology to claim a false ecosystem of hope is extraordinarily dangerous and potentially damaging to folks who have those hopes dashed when reality hits home.
“Actually, you’re doing them a great service by giving them a measured response about the damage that could happen if kids get sick from playing football.”
There are people who won’t wear masks, believe COVID is an unnecessary panic and are sure all sports should be played, amen. There are people who don’t want to send their kids to school and certainly want all sports called off this autumn.
I made it clear I was in the gray. I’m with dual cross country meets. I thought I was good with swimming dual meets, also considered low risk. Yet a few days later, we’re reading about problems associated with making sure pools are available and safe.
Daily newspapers aren’t the Bible. They are a snapshot of reality, hopefully the most accurate snapshot. Situations change. Honest opinion-makers aren’t agenda-driven. We can argue field hockey, volleyball and soccer this fall. But sweat, blood, spit, bodies in constant contact, so many in a locker room, equipment, travel, etc., of football? Nah. Not yet.
“I thought you dealt with the situation honestly,” Murphy said. “We have to be the adults. We have to put the health and the mental health of the students first.”
Murphy wrote a book in the ’90s: “The Cheers and The Tears: A Healthy Alternative to the Dark Side of Youth Sports Today.” He did workshops across the country.
“I don’t think a lot has changed since then with parents and youth sports,” Murphy said. “Parents get very emotionally invested. It’s just a fact of life.”
The American Psychological Association is holding its annual conventional virtually this weekend. Murphy was involved in a workshop on the effects of COVID-19 and particularly the extremely high level of stress there is with high school students.
Not exercising as much, missing sports, is part of this. Yet so is something else.
“We need to think about the stress we could potentially be placing students under if they go back into sports,” Murphy said. “They’ll do it if their parents and coaches say, yeah, we want you out there. That doesn’t mean they don’t have doubts and anxiety.
“They’re teenagers, they read everything online. They know the data. They know the people in their lives who are particularly vulnerable.”
Hope. Risks. Rewards. Murphy believes high-schoolers are old enough to deserve the full picture.
“It’s a great opportunity to learn about life,” he said. “Who among us in February thought things would be like they were in April? There are things in life you cannot control. The virus is a wild card.
“It’s taking quite a lot of learning as adults, trial and error, to figure out the best strategies to protect us all. It sounds complicated and complex and it is. I don’t think a 16-year-old should be protected from that reality. They appreciate that sort of honest communication from adults.”
Tieri stung me with a 46-word Tweet that was “liked” 49 times. It ended, “I love your kids more. (Then give them hope).”
Tieri is passionate and emotional on the topic. Those are his words. He loves his players. He is surrounded by them every day. Football can help these kids with college. Football can keep them out of trouble.
“Since the pandemic started, trying to lift these kids up, keep them focused day to day and trying to provide them with some sort of hope, there’s so much negativity swirling around them,” Tieri said. “It has definitely taken a toll on their mental well-being. I guess I’ve gotten a little defensive in trying to protect them and keep their well-being intact so they can keep moving forward.
“Having the kids back working out and together has been uplifting for them. You see how it transforms them, speaking to their parents, their body language, the way they interact — everything has improved dramatically.”
Over four decades, I’ve covered sports from Beijing (China) to Berlin (CT). I’ve learned to watch dispassionately, growing emotional only when the Wi-Fi doesn’t work. Yet sit me at my son’s basketball games, in high school and now at college, and I can’t sit. I stand. I spin. I jump. I yell. I cheer. The referees aren’t nearly as smart when you’re a parent. Dispassionate is the last word to describe me.
I bring that up to not only to point out I understand parental emotions, but to demonstrate there are two rivers flowing parallel. One is the biased, loving, sometimes crazy river of a sports parent. One who would be sorely disappointed if my kid couldn’t play a season. The other is the more detached and analytical river of a sports columnist. One who would write that canceling a season is the right thing to do. It doesn’t make one a hypocrite, only a journalist and a dad.
“Without a doubt, you have an obligation to give your interpretation of what’s going on, but there’s such a wave of negative news, not just COVID,” Tieri said. “I realize that whatever side of the aisle you are, you’re going to get negative backlash. That’s the world we live in, but the kids’ mental state has to be taken into account.
“We all know what could happen. We all know we’re living with a very scary situation, but we’ve done a phenomenal job as a state of following the guidelines and putting ourselves in a situation with the COVID numbers to be able to do this. There’s hope. The kids are just as culpable in this. They can’t be out at parties and doing stupid things that jeopardize their season. If two, three months from now if the numbers go up, and it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen. We all know why. In the meantime, let’s hang on to what little hope we have and at least help these kids emotionally.”
It is not my job to sell hope.
It is my job to quote people who care so much about their athletes.
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