California based movement LetThemPlayCA gains momentum in Orange County

LetThemPlayCA supporters hold signs in Mission Viejo, Calif. Jan. 29, 2021. Katarina De Almeida/Lariat

Patrick Walsh, varsity football coach at Junipero Serra High School, sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Jan. 21, stating that youth athletic competition does not pose COVID-19-related risks to participants or the community. The other coaches that are apart of the Golden State High School Coaches Communities’ goal are to show state government and health officials that youth sports can be done safely. Walsh and other local high school coaches, students and parents are currently active in the Facebook group LetThemPlayCA, which currently has 55,000 members.

The data collected by the National Federation of High Schools and individual state associations claim that out of 21,370 athletes, there were only 567 reports of COVID-19 cases, which is less than 3%. The rate of transmission from workouts is 1 in 91,756 athletes and 1 in 70,282 coaches. Over 275 schools are represented in the data collected between May 1 to Dec. 31, 2020.

Ken Elliot, a former youth and high school football coach, works with the group and helped launch the Facebook page on Jan. 1, 2020.

“It’s blown up in ways that I don’t think either of us really expected,” Elliot said. “I think a big part of that was we joined forces with the Golden State High School Football Coaches Association. So we have the same goal, but we’re working on sort of parallel tracks. They’re a little more political, and we’re a little more family slash grassroots.”

Elliot was unsure about community colleges’ involvement in the LetThemPlayCa movement as it was unclear if students were able to practice on campus. The Saddleback College athletic department had no comment on the organization or how athletes are coping with the restrictions.

The campus is currently closed and has restricted athletic practice and competitions. Saddleback soccer player Emma Snow has played for 10 years.

“Soccer has always been a super important outlet for me to get away from the stresses of school and life in general,” she said. “I know I can speak for many athletes when I say that we have dedicated ourselves day and night to achieve our goals as athletes. So much time and effort has been put into athletic competition and to have it taken away so abruptly is super hard to cope with.”

Mental Health America research and the LetThemPlayCa parent survey data from September 2020 states that over one half of 11 to 17-year-olds have reported having thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than half or nearly every day of the previous two weeks. Compared to the American Psychological Association, stating that the rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts increased by only 47% from 2008 to 2017.

The Facebook page includes testimonials of parents who share their stories of how the restrictions on youth and high school sports have weighed down on their child’s mental health. There has been a negative impact amongst youth and student-athletes in suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression, Mental Health America states.

“Some of my friends handle it well and others not so much,” said Ryan Pitter, football and track athlete from Shafter High School. “You can tell there are very dull moods, and there’s no energy or excitement to do anything.”

Professional athletes Collin Johnson from the Jacksonville Jaguars and Josiah Degruara from the Green Bay Packers also shared their support by speaking out on California student-athletes’ behalf on the private group page.

The NCAA Student-Athlete COVID-19 Well-being study states that more than a quarter of participants reported feeling sadness or a sense of loss. Further, one in 12 athletes reported feeling so depressed that it has been difficult to function. Student-athletes like Nicolas Guynn, a senior at Yosemite High School in the Central Section, have been sharing their concerns as they watch their teammates’ enthusiasm diminish.

“As the start dates of our senior season of football kept being pushed further back, I could easily see that some of my teammates weren’t doing too well,” Guynn said. “As a captain of the football team and wrestling team, it hurts to see my brothers hurting.”

Mission Viejo High School supporters protest Gov. Gavin Newsom’s local sports competition restrictions. Katarina De Almeida/Lariat

Last week, the non-profit organized rallies throughout California. In Mission Viejo, at the intersection of Marguerite and Oso Pkwy from 4-5 p.m., local high school parents and students showed up with signs to spread awareness.

“The idea is to show up and show out to politicians that we have parents and kids who are upset and suffering needlessly and to let them know that we’re here, we’re serious, and we really want something done about this,” Elliot said. “That’s not emotional or political and that it’s science-driven and intelligence-based.”

Vicki Therrien, who is the organizer of the rally in Mission Viejo and whose son is a senior at Capistrano Valley High School, understands the importance of athletic practice for seniors and all of the teams involved.

“I was so excited to see that Tesoro, Mission, San Juan and Dana Hills show up,” Therrien said. “I thought it was so powerful to have all the different schools there.”

Therrien said she advocates for all student-athletes, and she works together with the parents to do all that they can to support their kids. She is also a coordinator with the Capistrano Valley High School Football Boosters Club, where a committee of parents helps support student-athletes.

On Jan. 28, a lawsuit was filed in San Diego Superior Court demanding that high school and youth sports be removed from the tier system and begin the competition. This week, the Golden State Coaches Committee will be meeting with Health Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly and Executive Secretary Jim Deboo on Thursday at 1 p.m.

Editor’s Note: Anyone struggling with mental health can get help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, visiting this website, or by texting HOME to 741741. Find more information about the warning signs of suicide and how to help a loved one here.