Editorial: In football debate, safety must come first

High school football coaches, players and their families from across the state at the state Capitol building to protest not being able to play in the upcoming season due to the coronavirus this week.

It’s hard not to feel for the legions of high school football players who showed up at the Capitol this week to plead for a chance to play their season this year. For many of them, football is central to their identity, and something they may never have the chance to do again. A few are even hoping to use their skills on the field to qualify for a college scholarship and continue their playing careers along with their educations.

It was a similar scene in Hartford this week to one that played out in the spring at the start of the coronavirus crisis. At that time, the high school sports governing body, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, came under criticism for canceling spring sports in what many athletes and coaches thought was an overreaction to a pandemic that at that time was just unfolding. In retrospect, the CIAC made the right decision and they were smart to be as bold as they were.

Now, six months later, schools are back in session, but it’s anything but a normal year. Many districts are employing a hybrid approach, with students splitting time between in-person and at-home learning, and others have gone online only. Under any circumstances, children in school are required to wear masks and maintain social distancing guidelines.

Under those conditions, the idea of then sending those same students out to play full-contact sports would be hard to justify. The CIAC canceled the football season based on advice from the state Department of Public Health, and the decision was justified, hard as it was to accept for many.

So athletes and coaches who are asking Gov. Ned Lamont to allow them to play are pleading the wrong case. Lamont has been supportive of an open dialogue to try to reach a compromise, but the ultimate decision doesn’t lie with him. A Friday meeting between state health and athletic officials could yet come up with a workable plan.

Regardless, it’s up to the adults in the conversation — whether that’s parents, coaches or officials — to keep the issue in perspective. Health and safety must come first. And while schools have opened around much of the state, the first week hasn’t been without difficulties — already there are scattered COVID cases in various districts that are forcing administrators to rethink their plans.

The NFL season was scheduled to get underway this week, and college football has begun, as well — though not all conferences are taking part. High school football, advocates say, does not present the same risks because the travel component is more limited.

Still, no one would argue that the risk is zero. The coronavirus pandemic has not been tamed, even as Connecticut has seen low infection rates and decreasing hospitalizations in recent months. It’s not just the players at risk, but everyone they might come in contact with, including parents and grandparents.

The players’ complaints are legitimate and must be heard. But just like in the spring, they can’t be the final word. In deciding the future of fall sports, safety matters most.

Connecticut Media Group