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'I wouldn't be able to forgive myself': Youth football coaches, leagues weigh costs of playing in pandemic

Lorenzo Reyes
USA TODAY

Jason Gonzales logged into Skype, awaiting an outcome he feared.

President of Poway Pop Warner Football & Cheer (PPW), Gonzales was hosting a virtual meeting with the rest of the association's board June 30. He allowed each of the 10 other board members five minutes to share doubts, concerns, data, anecdotes – anything to assert their stance.

As the novel coronavirus continued to decimate communities across the United States, the board was debating whether it should approve a 2020 season in the fall. At the end of the meeting, they would vote.

Perched twenty-some miles northeast of San Diego, Poway had been seeing confirmed COVID-19 cases swell throughout the region. By the start of June, San Diego County reported 7,674 confirmed infections, according to data compiled by the county. By the end of the month, that number almost doubled to 14,623.Two hours north, in Los Angeles County, it was much worse. Total confirmed cases spiked to 110,544 on June 30, after opening the month at 58,656.

For Gonzales, a father of four whose two youngest boys play for Poway, the decision weighed heavily.  

The final tally: six to cancel, two against, two abstentions. 

Gonzales, through the dejection of a fall without football, felt something unexpected: relief.

“What if Poway Pop Warner would’ve started and we would’ve gotten unlucky?” Gonzales told USA TODAY Sports. “What if we got one kid sick, cheerleader or football player? And that poor child passed away? I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself. For us, as a board, it just became too problematic. There were way more problems than there were benefits.”

PPW is far from alone. It was the first squad in the 22-team West Coast Conference to cancel. As of Thursday evening, six more have followed and several others are yet to make a final determination in a pattern sweeping across the U.S. 

Youth football faces an uncertain future during the pandemic.

The American Youth Football League, which has 15 teams across South Florida, voted unanimously July 15 to cancel. In the letter announcing the decision, the AYFL board wrote it “could not provide a safe football experience.”

Western North Carolina Youth Football and Cheerleading, which has 18 teams in five counties, also canceled. There are dozens more.

But several associations and leagues are planning their seasons as scheduled, raising questions about the morality, ethics and safety of playing in a pandemic. 

MORE: In COVID-19 hot spots like Florida and Texas, youth sports have patchwork response to rising cases

Fall without football: How America would look without its favorite sport

“You see videos of hospitals at capacity,” Gonzales continued. “I don’t want to add to that. I don’t want to see one of our little boys or one of our little girls or someone I’ve come to know in this community, hooked up to tubes. I love this game. It has given me so much in my life. But it’s not worth a little kid, worth a parent getting sick.”

National organization provides structure, guidelines

Pop Warner Little Scholars (PWLS), the national organization of which Poway is an affiliate, is the largest youth football, cheer and dance program in the U.S. with around 325,000 participants aged 5 to 16. Jon Butler, executive director of PWLS, said he expects participation to be about 15% of typical years and stressed that “the most important thing” for teams who play is to observe local public health measures.

Through guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health officials and the Pop Warner Medical Advisory Committee, PWLS crafted its return to play guidelines. 

They mandate that any state, county, or city ordinances “take precedence if they are more restrictive.” PWLS has opted not to make any national cancellations and is leaving decisions up to local chapters. Rather, its guidelines provide the structure if teams deem it safe and reasonable to play.

“Our position was if you can have a season and you choose to, we’ll support you,” Butler told USA TODAY Sports. 

Butler said PWLS has encouraged associations to explore alternatives, such as flag football or 7-on-7 passing leagues, activities USA Football has deemed to have lower risk levels. On the cheerleading side, PWLS also developed a no-mount division that eliminates physical contact.

“We said, ‘Look, anything you can do is better than doing nothing,’ ” Butler said. “We want to give them the opportunity to get the kids out there safely and we’re being very flexible because in so many areas in life, we have to be when we’re in a pandemic.”

The CDC, though, advises against all competitions in its Considerations for Youth Sports. The guidance lists a spectrum of activities and the risk they carry, ranging from lowest (drills or conditioning at home) to highest (full competition between teams from different geographic areas).

Parents seem to agree. According to a survey published in June by USA Football, 61% of youth sports parents with children aged 5-14 felt that tackle football is high risk, while 30% said they thought flag football was high risk. Twenty percent of parents also indicated they wouldn't feel comfortable returning to youth sports until 2021.

For reference, Gonzales estimated that on any given game day between two Pop Warner teams, about 180 people are on the field, not counting spectators.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN in June that “unless players are essentially in a bubble … and tested nearly every day … it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall.” 

PWLS teams won't have capacity to perform COVID-19 tests, but will check temperatures. Among the other measures, coaches are required to wear masks and observe social distancing and balls and equipment must be sanitized.

Gonzales told any parents frustrated by Poway's decision that he would support them to join nearby associations that were moving forward with their seasons.

Heather Speer is the mother of three boys, two of whom played for Poway. On Gonzales' advice, she took her sons to Scripps Ranch Pop Warner, about five miles to the south, to initiate their registration. Three weeks after PPW canceled, Scripps Ranch did, too.

Her 16-year-old son is participating in outdoor weight training, through his school, for his wrestling and football teams. But her 10-year-old doesn't have such an outlet.

"There's nothing for him right now," Speer said. "He's the one that I'm more concerned about. He's frustrated a lot more these days. He's cooped up. He doesn't have any release. He doesn't have his friends to hear their complaints and commiserate with.

"His temper is a little bit quicker than it normally is. I would love for him to be exercising under somebody else's voice, other than my own."

Speer won't pursue joining any other associations because she doesn't feel it's responsible to mix with communities farther away, potentially creating unnecessary exposures. She would have preferred, rather, that associations that have canceled their seasons to have explored simply holding practices and to have listened more closely to concerns of the parents. 

"I'm not ignoring social responsibility, I just feel that there's a lot of freedoms that were taken away without us having a choice," Speer said. "I don't think this is good for anybody's well-being in the slightest. These guys need something more for their emotional well-being. I just wonder, what is this going to look like for them in the future? What will this mean? That has my concern."

‘That's the bigger mountain to climb’

PWLS mandates all participants – players (through their parents), coaches, volunteers and league officials – to complete and sign a waiver provided on its website. The organization also provides instructions for teams on how to administer and enforce it.

The waiver asks about potential exposures, symptoms and outlines temperature check requirements. It also requires participants to inform local health officials if they develop symptoms, come in contact with someone who has tested positive or become infected.

“Further, attending Pop Warner activity could increase the risk of contracting COVID-19,” the waiver states.

The participant also voluntarily agrees “not to sue” PWLS or any of its affiliates, but the waiver might not provide the legal protection that it intends, experts say.

According to N. Jeremi Duru, who teaches sports law, civil procedure and employment discrimination at American University, a participant still holds the right to sue. PWLS would likely appeal to the presiding judge with a motion to dismiss, Duru said, citing the signed waiver. It would be up to the judge to determine the validity of the waiver as a legal document.

“I don’t think there is a legal officer out there who believes that this waiver, or a waiver like it, is an ironclad guarantee that you’re not going to be successfully sued,” Duru told USA TODAY Sports.

Duru compared it to the “notoriously weak” fine print on the back of baseball tickets that “courts often don't enforce” and that declares an assumption of risk of getting hit by a foul ball.

“The real challenge to being successful is not getting over the waiver, it’s establishing causation,” Duru said of proving that a participant became infected at a PWLS event. “That’s the bigger mountain to climb.”

For that reason, Duru said the “chances of winning are slim,” before noting that philosophical discrepancies among judges and jurisdictions further complicate any potential cases.

Dr. Susan Mullane, associate professor and undergraduate program director for sport administration at the University of Miami, acknowledged that waivers can protect against frivolous law suits. She said, however, that “it becomes very unethical” when they seek to eliminate certain essential rights.

“When we say for other people that it’s OK to be negligent, sports are based on responsibility and safety, and kids depend on other people to be responsible,” Mullane said. “You kind of negate that responsibility.”

Setting aside the legal and ethical implications, a certain burden falls on parents, who must ultimately weigh the health benefits of sports after months of quarantine against health risks to children and their families by potentially increasing their exposure to the virus.

Mullane suggested creating virtual training sessions instead. In them, coaches could offer instruction and ask children to work on specific drills to improve their performance once play resumes. That would empower children, Mullane said, and would allow parents to engage in non-academic activities, a departure from in-home learning that has consumed families across the country.

“We need to, with all of these discussions with sports, go back to the original reasons and principles of sport,” Mullane said. “They’re all the same throughout youth, high school, college, professional. There are supposed to be elements of fun and responsibility and accountability and, clearly, safety. In order to be ethical, we have to adhere to values that are important. ”