An advocacy group and parents in Michigan are asking a court to block the state’s order banning contact winter sports.
Let Them Play Michigan and parents filed a lawsuit on Feb. 2 against Michigan Health Director Elizabeth Hertel.
Plaintiffs said they sued “to vindicate the rights of high school athletes to maintain their physical and mental health, to freely associate with one another as a component of their education, and to compete on equal terms with other athletes.”
Attorney Peter Ruddell, who is representing the plaintiffs, told reporters in a virtual press conference that they would have preferred not to file the suit.
“Unfortunately, there is no other place for citizens to appeal a decision that restricts the parents’ and student athletes’ ability to pursue a key component of their public education,” he said.
“The ban on athletic practice and competition has restricted the ability of these and many other student athletes from achieving their career pathway, competing, practicing, and potentially gaining college scholarships.”
A pilot study conducted by the Michigan High School Athletic Association and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services showed a 99.8 percent negativity rate for COVID-19 among thousands of coaches and athletes, Ruddell noted. Additionally, adjacent states that are allowing winter contact sports, such as Ohio and Indiana, have seen a decrease in transmission of COVID-19.
The suit alleges Michigan health officials have not put forth data specific to high school contact sports supporting the ban. High school non-contact sports and collegiate and professional contact sports are not banned in Michigan.
Plaintiffs want the court to block the state’s order and allow contact sports to resume immediately.
In a statement to news outlets, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said, “The administration does not generally comment on litigation and does not make decisions based on lawsuits, but on data and the ongoing advice of public health experts.”
“As the numbers in Michigan continue to decline, and as the governor has already indicated, the administration is reviewing current mitigation measures, including those around contact sports,” a spokesperson for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said.
Whitmer told reporters on Jan. 25 that “we’re watching the numbers very closely,” adding: “It’s important that we keep watching the numbers. I mean, I understand the concern that parents and athletes have, and their desire to reengage.”
Officials cited preliminary data from the University of Michigan School of Public Health in alleging restrictions, including the sports ban, “likely prevented over 100,000 new cases and 1,960 or more deaths.”
Thousands rallied at Michigan’s Capitol on Sunday to call for the return of high school sports. And other groups have pushed state officials to let the sports resume. The Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan told Whitmer, a Democrat, in a Jan. 23 letter that student-athletes “are now at a breaking point” after the governor and health officials last month extended the ban on winter contact sports to Feb. 21.
The extension came even as officials allowed indoor dining and entertainment venues to reopen.
The contrast sends “mixed and contradictory messages” to students, Detroit Community Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told Whitmer in a letter.
“The opposition, despair, and anger to the continuing suspension of winter ‘contact’ sports is rapidly growing,” Vitti wrote. “Please do not let this frustration reach the level of a lawsuit against you and the state. Coaches, student-athletes, and their parents are in conversations with attorneys.”
The coaches association warned of “increased in depression, anxiety, and worse” due to the COVID-19 pandemic and said allowing students to play sports “would give them a tremendous outlet and a much needed support system to help them through these challenging times.”
The plaintiffs in the suit include the parents of Brennan Dethloff, who died last month from injuries sustained from a car crash. His parents have said the winter sports stoppage contributed to the death.
Madison Cunningham, a senior at Ovid-Elsie High School, told WNEM that the ban has taken a toll on her mental health. “It’s kinda been really depressing for me and for a lot of other people. So it’s just really hard to not have anything to look forward to because it’s getting ripped away from us,” Cunningham said.
In guidance to schools and athletes, the Michigan health department said contact sports, or sports “involving more than occasional and fleeting contact, pose a particular challenge in the era of COVID-19 due to the closeness of the players and potential for infectious disease transmission. Even with mitigation measures in place, such as wearing of masks, disease transmission cannot be completely prevented when players are in prolonged or intense contact.”
Contact sports include football, basketball, hockey, and soccer.
The extension took many off guard, including the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
“We found out about this decision at 9:30 a.m. like everyone else, and we will address it as quickly as possible after taking the weekend to collect more information,” Mark Uyl, executive director of the association, said at the time. “We did not anticipate this delay in winter contact practices and competition, and today’s announcement has created many new questions.”
Uyl later said the group was working to have winter sports resume and the association’s council on Jan. 27 reaffirmed its commitment to play winter sports when the restrictions are lifted.