How one HS coach is fighting back against the effects of no sports originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
High school athletics have been on timeout for nearly a year in the nation’s capital, and though the intent of the city’s elected officials may be to keep student-athletes and the community safe during the coronavirus pandemic, the unintended consequences of sidelining sports may leave lingering effects that pervade the community deeper than the virus itself.
Athletics play a major role in the lives of student-athletes across the country, and in no place is that truer than Washington, D.C. The District is home to a rich history of high school sports, touting national powerhouses in basketball, lacrosse, hockey and football. The bouncing of the ball and roar of the crowd is as synonymous to the city as Ben’s Chili Bowl, Go-Go Music and mambo sauce. The inability to partake in the sports they love has been emotionally devastating for both student-athletes and coaches alike.
“I can only imagine how hard this has been for the kids, because I know what it’s been like for me,” Gonzaga head basketball coach Stephen Turner said. “One of the things I kept pointing out during this time is the mental health aspect of things; I truly believe that is the next major pandemic. I think we’re living it, but it’s not being talked about enough. I believe once we get beyond Covid-19, we’re gonna be dealing with a lot of mental health issues. We’re starting to see it: divorce rates, domestic violence, kids committing suicide, kids getting involved in street life they wouldn’t have been involved in if we had activity in place. It’s already starting to happen, it’s just not being talked about because of everything happening around us.”
The five-time WCAC coach of the year who has over 30 years of coaching and mentoring experience, has roamed the Gonzaga sidelines since 1999. His work with student-athletes goes beyond the whistle, wins and championship banners, he gives all of himself in order to give back to the community. Thus, having been without hoops for so long, nearly dunked Turner.
“Anybody who has watched me coach knows I put my blood, sweat and tears into everything I do,” Turner said. “And it’s not always about winning championships. As a coach, I’m a mentor and a father-figure to these young men. I try to be a guiding force in their lives in terms of using basketball to be a vehicle to earn a scholarship, so their parents don’t have to pay for school.
“To have something I put so much into be taken away, man, I’m not gonna lie, there were days which I was feeling depressed. Not necessarily ‘depressed’ as if I might need to medicate or meet with a counselor, but it hurt. I love basketball and working with my kids so dearly that when something like that is stripped away, it’ll drive you crazy. So again, I can’t imagine what this has to have been like for the kids.”
Turner is not alone. According to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports of anxiety tripled across the country in 2020, and cases of depression, quadrupled in the same time, with youth being disproportionately affected by both. Pediatrician and adolescent health specialist Dr. Anita Abraham believes the quarantine, virtual learning and being away from coaches and teammates have made adjusting to the new normal hard on teens.
“The pandemic has had a terrible toll on young people,” Abraham told CBS-Washington affiliate WUSA9 in September. “There are more and more kids feeling uncertain about the future, feeling isolated from friends and family. They’re not able to go to school, they’re not able to go to sports and activities like they used to, so it’s increased the number of people who are feeling stressed, anxious and suicidal.”
Aaron Thomas of Bell Multicultural High School can attest to the challenges of life without sports. The senior defensive back, who had hopes of earning an athletic scholarship during his final season, stresses that for friends in his community, playing football is more than an athletic endeavor, it’s an academic motivator and emotional refuge.
“Playing ball helps me cope with other things that I go through in daily life, as far as school or things at home,” Thomas said. “Sports give me something to look forward to. For a lot of us, sports push us in school -- we know we need our grades just to be able to play and maybe earn a scholarship, but now some of us are at home just waiting and seeing if something is gonna happen and we can play this year. Honestly, it’s sad and it’s really stressful. We have no outlet to go to and nobody to express what’s going on with us personally and I feel like that’s the biggest thing about this, is the emotional and mental part of it.”
Thomas says in addition to the stress stemming from the uncertainty of what will be his next step, he also fears for the safety of himself and his peers. Less time on the playing field ultimately leads to more time in the streets of Washington, which is becoming an increasingly dangerous proposition. Homicides in the district sky-rocketed in 2020. The Metropolitan Police Department reported there were 198 murders, up from 166 in 2019, a 19% increase. It was the deadliest year since 2004. Thomas believes playing football could have saved at least one of those lives.
“Being able to play is extremely important, especially being where I’m from on the Southeast side of the city,” Thomas said. “We’ve already seen so many cases of Black-on-Black crime, so many kids have been hurt or harmed. A friend of mine, from Dunbar High School, was tragically taken away, and it put pain in our hearts because if we had football, maybe the incident wouldn’t have happened. Right now, it’s very critical because we’re just out here and we have nothing to do. Sometimes we don’t have a lot of guidance, and the guidance we do have ends up getting taken away from us.”
Though many D.C. schools are using hybrid models to return to the classroom, the re-engagement of high school athletics is still prohibited in the District, at the order of Mayor Muriel Bowser. In the face of mounting frustration from parents, student-athletes and coaches alike, D.C. State Athletic Association executive director Clark Ray asks for patience.
“We look forward to return to play as soon as it is deemed safe,” Ray said in a written statement. “We know the positive impact that athletics have on our student athletes and will do everything we can to resume play under safe conditions.”
The office of the DCSAA is keenly aware of the mental health challenges facing student-athletes and is working with the Department of Behavioral Health to provide tools to help combat the effects of the last year.
“I have been very concerned about the mental health of our students and student-athletes,” Ray said. “We have to help our kids and help our coaches, so I’m pleased that the department of behavioral health has mandated that our public schools and public charter school administrators take a module that has been developed on depression awareness, mental health and suicide prevention awareness.
“We’re hoping to soon be able to offer those to our coaches and athletic directors as well. I believe that’ll be a step in the right direction to allow them access to information to be able to recognize these tendencies and traits in student athletes who are having a hard time.”
In the interim, coach Turner has found the most effective way to help himself overcome the “Covid blues” is to develop additional ways to help those he serves. He has actively sought relationships with other D.C. coaches and collectively they’ve formed the common goal of not only helping student-athletes get through the pandemic but providing support for one another in the process.
“The best thing that has come out of this [pandemic] is I gained a lot of brothers,” Turner said. “I hit a point early on when I had to ask myself if I was going to sit back and feel sorry for myself or use the time to better the lives of others. I chose the latter and have built this bond with these coaches who felt the same. I got to learn there are a lot of other men in the DMV who are like me, who have like reasons for why they do what they do, and now we have a fraternity that we can lean on in times of trouble.”
The group, which amongst others consists of Sidwell’s Eric Singletary, Cesar Chavez’s Malcolm Battle and Anacostia’s Reggie Walker, meet on Zoom calls 2-3 times a week to discuss best practices for assisting student-athletes, as well as checking in on each other’s mental health.
“We have conversations where we’re talking to each other about what we’re going through and we end up in tears, and we have other conversations where we really find something that we believe will be able to improve the lives of all the kids in D.C.,” Turner said. “Now we’re all looking out for each other and looking out for each other’s kids, and that’s how it should be. So, if I got a brother in need who maybe his kid is dealing with an issue or isn’t getting recruited, I’m making the call for him, because we have to do whatever we can to both support one another and give back to these kids so that we can help them not get caught up in these mental health things.”
The District remains under a Public Health Emergency until March 17, during which high school extracurricular sports activities and competitions are suspended for D.C. public schools, public charter schools, private schools and parochial schools.