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Across California, parents and students held coordinated rallies at more than 130 high schools on Friday under the banner "Let Them Play.” They were trying to get the attention of politicians. Going on 10 months, high school sports has been halted because of decisions made to protect residents from the coronavirus.
At Crenshaw High, the South Los Angeles campus was deserted on Friday afternoon. Its longtime football coach, Robert Garrett, said he knew nothing of any rallies.
“I didn’t get the memo,” he said.
When told about the motivation for the rallies to get kids playing sports again, Garrett said his community had more important issues to consider.
“Like trying to find another meal,” he said. “Trying to keep the lights on at home. Trying to get people on the internet to log on to Zoom. Trying to find a computer. Trying to get paper towels and soap. There’s a lot more going on than having a rally beyond football.”
Garrett became head coach at Crenshaw in 1988, when the student body had more than 3,000 students. Enrollment has fallen to 650 as students left for neighborhood charter schools. He said he planned to retire after 2023, but 10 months of staying and working at home has changed his thinking.
“I have a lot of energy and fire inside of me,” he said. “It’s still burning. It gives me motivation not to retire. I don’t like sitting around.”
Three times a week, he meets with the football class via computer.
“I’m an expert now,” he said. “No, I’m a para-professional. I feel comfortable with it. In fact, when this is over, I’m going to use it.”
His video calls don’t involve too much talk about football.
"We try to assist each other academically and talk life lessons and current events and things going on in their households and mental attitudes,” he said. “Kids are more encouraging to each other more than I’ve seen before. The mental problems they have is not unusual. We deal with mental issues daily. We’re so resilient with problems. It’s just another drop in the pail. What we spend time on is trying to build up academics and get higher grades.”
In November, the Los Angeles Unified School District briefly let teams work out on campus if they filled out required paperwork and students were tested for COVID-19. Crenshaw wasn’t one of them, so Garrett has not had in-person contact with his players since last March. That’s a big loss, since his influence has helped change the fortunes and attitudes of so many students through the years.
There are only two seniors on the Cougars' football roster, and he has been impressed with his players’ commitment for each other. When one player’s family member got COVID-19, Garrett said everyone rallied around him.
“It was overwhelming to see the support kids had for each other,” he said. “They’re becoming more of a close-knit group because of the pandemic.”
There's no sign a football season will take place in LAUSD. It was supposed to start on Jan. 8 after being delayed last July. The LAUSD superintendent, Austin Beutner, said in November "if you can't have 12 kids in a classroom safely, how can you have 12 guys on the court?"
Data released by Golden State HS Football Coaches Community. Coach Patrick Walsh says it's proof "it is safe to put these kids on the field." pic.twitter.com/nuzx2nsOv3
— eric sondheimer (@latsondheimer) January 15, 2021
A coalition of California coaches challenges that assessment, insisting statistics compiled in states that had sports seasons and among schools that engaged in conditioning in California show that sports can be played safely with appropriate protocols.
"It is safe to put these kids on the field," San Mateo Serra football coach Patrick Walsh said.
Garrett said he’s not ready to return to teaching until safety issues are addressed.
“I’ve been crying for running hot water from the time I got there,” he said. “I have notes and documents. When are they going to have running hot water so kids could take a shower or wash their hands?”
As for playing games, he said, "If the hospital beds are filled up, why are you saying you want the best for kids?"
There's a growing divide between the haves and have-nots. Those with money are sending their kids to play sports out of state or joining club teams that ignore state health guidelines prohibiting youth sports competitions. Those without money are left to fend for themselves, losing out on opportunities, crushing dreams and aspirations.
After 10 months of no classes, no sports activities and little support from politicians and superintendents, hope is slipping away. Someone in authority needs to step up and say, "This is the way."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.