As we continue to stumble around trying to find our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear that the journey has been a never-ending continuum of exercises in risk/benefit assessment. The population always has sorted itself into a bell-shaped curve from those who are risk averse to those who revel in risk taking. And, of course, with a paucity of facts on which we can base our assessment of risk, the discussion often shifts to our gut feelings about the benefits.
When faced with the question of when it is time for children to return to in-person schooling, there seems to be reasonably good agreement about the benefits of face-to-face learning. The level of risk is still to be determined.
When it comes to the issue of when to return to competitive school sports, the risks are equally indeterminate but there is less agreement on the benefits. This lack of uniformity reflects a long-standing dichotomy between those parents and students with a passion for competitive sports and those who see them as nonessential. This existential tug-of-war has gone on in almost every school system I am aware of when the school budget comes up for a vote.
The debate about a return to competitive sports on a collegiate and professional level unfortunately is colored by enormous revenues from media contracts, which means that high school and middle schools can’t look to what are essentially businesses for guidance.The delay created confusion, fluctuating angst and disappointment, but the end product made some sense. Volleyball (indoor) and football were indefinitely delayed. Heavy breathing between competitors separated by a couple of feet and protected only by a flimsy net or helmet cage seems like a risk not worth taking – at least until we have more information.
Other sports were allowed to start with restrictions based on existing social distancing mandates which include no locker rooms and no fans. Some rules such as no throw-ins for soccer didn’t make sense given what we are learning about the virus. But, for the most part, the compromises should result in a chance to reap the benefits of competition for the students whose families are willing to expose them to the yet to be fully determined risks.
There has been some grumbling from parents who see the no-fans mandate as a step too far. Until we know more about the risk of group gatherings outdoors, having no fans, including parents and grandparents, makes sense. In fact, to me it is a step long overdue and a rare sliver of silver lining to the pandemic. Competitive youth sports are for the kids. They are not meant to be entertainment events. Too often children are exposed to parental pressure (voiced and unvoiced) about their “performance” on the field. Neither my younger sister nor I can remember our parents going to any of my away football games in high school or any of my lacrosse games in college. I never felt the loss.
Will I miss watching my grandchildren compete? Of course I will miss it badly. However, giving kids some space to learn and enjoy the competition for itself in an atmosphere free of parental over-involvement will be a breath of fresh air. Something we need badly during this pandemic.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].