California's youth grapple with Covid-19 sporting shutdown

Nicolas PRATVIEL
·5 min read

After nearly a year of pandemic-induced sporting lockdown, athletes at schools across California have been given the green light to return to action.

But as youngsters prepare to unleash a year of pent-up frustration on the gridiron field or water polo pool, some say they will be dealing with the fallout from the shutdown for years to come.

Thoughout California, public officials and educators have warned of the damaging long-term impact that the wide-ranging ban on competitive sport has had on the Golden State's student athletes.

Mental health concerns include increases in depression and suicidal thoughts while public prosecutors say the Covid-19 pandemic has increased cases of juvenile crime and delinquency.

Cami Rowan, a 17-year-old high-school senior from the city of Corona, (77 km southeast of Los Angeles) offered a glimpse into the turmoil that the sporting shutdown had on her life.

A passionate water-polo player, Rowan plunged into depression last year after the pandemic and state-wide restrictions on competitive sport left her unable to play her favorite pastime.

The pandemic, she said, "turned my whole world upside down."

"Sport gives me an outlet to let go of all of the frustrations that come with being a teenager," she said. "It helps me to cope with normal life and it gives me a place to feel like I belong."

Rowan began being treated for depression in June last year.

"I'm better, but I still have tough days where I don't want to get out of bed. I just want to cry, because my life has been taken from me," she said.

- Lasting scars -

Rowan's father built a makeshift water polo goal for her backyard pool, where she trains with teammates at impromptu practice sessions.

While for some the end of the sporting shutdown is now in sight -- California Governor Gavin Newsom said Friday competitive sports could resume in counties with fewer than 14 Covid-19 infections per 100,000 residents -- Rowan says the scars of the past 12 months will be lasting.

"It's not just going to go away by starting playing games," she told AFP.

"It's definitely a scar that has cut pretty deep and it's going to take quite a few years to heal," said Rowan, who has secured a place at the University of Salem, West Virginia, later this year.

Gunnar Hensley, a high school student and promising quarterback at the coastal town of Carlsbad, north of San Diego, has spent a similar year of frustration.

With American football prohibited in California, the 16-year-old has had to make do with non-contact practice sessions, that until recently did not even involve a ball.

"We can practice, except we're not in pads or helmets, and we can't hit each other," he said. "So we're just running around with no football, because they won't let us use a football."

Hensley dreams of being recruited to play college football. But the lack of game-time means that scouts will have had no opportunity to gauge his talent.

"The colleges only take you and look at you if you have film from your high school season," he said. "But the problem is that they're not going to look at us, because we haven't played yet.

"The last few months I've had ups and downs. We think we're going to play again and then they cancel the season. It's depressing.

"But luckily I have a great family, a beautiful house. A lot of kids aren't as lucky as me. When their school gets canceled their football season gets canceled.

"And so a lot of them lose their friends because they can't connect to them so they're isolated."

- Youth at risk -

Hensley's father, Brad, tackled the issue by co-founding the "Let Them Play" grass roots organization in December calling for California's authorities to allow competitive sports to return. The group has an estimated 60,000 members.

Hensley said through his work with the group he was become more aware of the mental health impact of the sporting shutdown.

"I quickly realized as we grew from three people to 50,000 parents that there's some terrible stories out there of kids that have become depressed, kids that have committed suicide, kids that have turned to gangs," Hensley said.

The "Let Them Play" group is also suing the state of California over the right to return to sport.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said the lack of sport was contributing to a broader wave of pandemic-related social problems for California's youth, leaving them more vulnerable to to online predators.

"As somebody who has paid attention to kids and their health and safety for 30 years, I've never seen anything like it," Stephan said.

"Because there are no positive activities, they're not in sports, they're not doing things that build up their self confidence," she said.

"They're on their tablets, they're on their phones. And this is an opportunity for those who want to do harm to them to recruit them, groom them."

Other youths had been drawn into crime, Stephan said.

"We are seeing a lot of kids that are being successfully recruited to be part of gangs, we're seeing more guns on the street, more gun violence. And these are things that happen when kids don't have the positive influences."

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