Put-up or shut-up time for IHSA & youth student athletes

Joe Trost, Columnist

There comes a point in life when it’s put-up or shut-up time.

I’m looking at every youth and high school football, soccer, volleyball, field hockey, cheerleading and basketball coach to start who has sent me an email or text that they’ve been muzzled.

I’m looking at every athletic director who has sent me an email or text that they know the kids should be playing and the massive issues coming if they don’t.

I’m looking at every parent who has sent me an email or text that they know the mental toll this is taking on kids.

And I’m looking at every single student athlete in Illinois.

It’s time for you to work together, stop having one-off rallies, support one another together and turn the lights back on the courts and fields in Illinois.

The put-up or shut-up time happens this Friday in LaGrange at 7 p.m., with what many expect to be the largest “Let Us Play” support rally yet. Ironically, it’s the first on a Friday night when games will be taking place in every Midwest state and 80 percent of the U.S. except Illinois.

Either people show up or it’s time for them to shut up.

Period.

Don’t like that attitude? Well I can’t stand people who sit behind the scenes – especially a computer screen – and want other people to do the work for them. Busy or too far doesn’t work this time. It’s time to help kids – period.

Don’t be gutless and useless.

From school leaders, coaches and parents who are scared because they’ve been leaned on or just afraid to stand up for kids during the “Let US Play” support rallies, you need to look in the mirror and at every other state in the U.S.

As 80 percent of the U.S. – including the entire Midwest – continues to give their kids opportunities in the game of life, you’re sitting on your hands complaining and not showing up for kids. Each time you sit at home you big bad football coach talking the big game behind the scenes, you are letting kids down.

All talk on Thursday night and not showing up on Friday night doesn’t work anymore.

Look at Michigan, Minnesota, Maryland or Delaware for example. How about in Pennsylvania?

Seven states in 14 days have flipped. A 270-team youth tournament – featuring Illinois high school teams – took place one mile from Gov. Pritzker’s Wisconsin horse farm this past weekend, as 90 percent of the teams overall were from Illinois.

Not 20 percent. Not 50 percent. Not 75 percent.

Repeat after me: 90 percent. That’s more than 5,000 kids.

Did you see the youth games in Hammond, Merriville, Portage, St. Louis or just over the Iowa border, too? It’s OK to put families and kids on the road to play – in higher COVID19 positivity states – but they can’t play in Illinois?

If youth and high school contact sports are driving COVID19 outbreaks, where is the data? Families and student athletes have consistently been going over the border since Aug. 15.

“Although medical experts had their cautions about close-contact activities because of the disease, officials said indications in other high school activity (states) aren’t showing noticeably greater risk of transmission,” said Kris Ehresman, infectious disease director for the Minnesota Department of Health.

AS WGN News reported back in the spring, youth teams were traveling as early as May 2 down to Florida and other states. This past Friday night, ABC Chicago reported from Morton High School in Hammond, as it kicked off its football season.

At first, the Indiana school decided not to play until parents demanded and the data showed it was safe. It’s located three miles from the Illinois border. The time is now to demand a meeting from the IHSA and the Illinois Department of Public Health, as IHSA executive director Craig Anderson and Illinois Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz just stand still.

People who say there isn’t enough time for fall sports in Illinois, I always look and say, “Says who?”

This isn’t the 2017 calendar. This is 2020, and you already have reduced seasons. Who cares if you are playing football on Dec. 19 or Feb. 15? Basketball games are played over holiday break, why couldn’t football or other sports?

Stop saying can’t and start to figure out a way to help kids. Just saying no is a copout from having to do work for kids.

“We have enough evidence that sports and activities can be played safely,” said David Smith, medical director youth sports at the University of Kansas Health System and sits on the Kansas High School Sports Medicine Board. “You can take a high-risk sport and reduce it.”

Remember: Any move of any high school sport helps all sports. Want to know why?

Let’s just use Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for example, the largest school district in the state that can’t even get buses to show up on time – or at all – to pick kids up for games.

CPS doesn’t have the facilities – inside or outside – or the coaches for all levels in the current IHSA schedule makeup. They have part-time athletic directors, who are paid $5,500 a year and teach, too.

I’m not worried about CPS schools like Young, Lane or Jones. I’m worried about the schools that I’ve been to and you’ve probably never heard of. I’m worried about those kids that were sacked last year during the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) strike as juniors, and here we are again during a unique period in history.

How about athletic trainers? CPS doesn’t have the resources.

You really think it’s going to be healthier and safer to play outside for football and boys soccer on Feb. 15? Frozen fields, concussions, injuries from unsafe fields and temperatures.

Barrington, Winnetka, Hinsdale, Naperville and others will find the indoor facilities, but what about the low-income communities and families? What about the small towns throughout Illinois without indoor facilities within miles?

People are complaining, saying it’s unfair all over social media. Not every family can afford club, which is why they need public tax-funded opportunities.

Time to shut up and show up.

Look at girls soccer for example, which is set to end at the end of June. What college coach is going to wait until June to fill out their college roster for the August 2021 season?

Girls soccer has been pushed back, because of football and boys soccer. How do you think that grass field is going to be for the girls soccer team after boys football and boys soccer are done with it from Feb. to May? Not to mention they lost the entire 2020 spring season, which people understood.

And before anyone says you should worry more about your work in the classroom kids, that’s a clueless statement. You need to have the grades to get into college. We’re talking about opportunities for athletic scholarships to help cover the cost to go to college.

People continue to talk about mental health, but they dismiss it. The student athlete who shot himself last Friday in the Northwest Suburbs or the one that hung himself previously, mental health doubters say they had other mental issues.

Some people have no problem pointing to COVID19 studies, even though doctors and data are saying and showing that youth contact sports are not causing community spread. But they refuse to listen to the medical professionals who are screaming about the mental impact student athletes are facing in Illinois.

We can see a physical injury, but we can’t see mental issues. Not all people can relate to someone else’s mental issue. Just think about when a person goes through a tough relationship breakup or a tough death. We say it takes time. Some people recover, some never do.

Think about that.

Sports are more than entertainment that you see on TV, more than athletes making millions of dollars. As Myles Mooyoung, formerly of Kenwood High School, told everyone in Chicago last month – sports are a way out for people.

A student athlete from Solorio Academy told me that college helps you get out of Gage Park. If they don’t have the opportunities to pay for college, people will never get out of Gage Park.

Don’t you think if youth and high school contact sports were driving COVID19 rates and deaths, wouldn’t national media would be all over it?

Less than two percent of all high school football games have been rescheduled because of COVID19. Yes, there are going to be cases, but medical professionals continue to point to disciplined and organized youth activity as a way to drive down COVID19 rates.

Youth and high school sports aren’t about putting 20,000 students together on a college campus and large parties. It’s about coming to a practice or games, not using a locker room, playing and enhancing physical and mental health.

A University of Wisconsin Medical study tracked 90,000 student athletes over a 10-week span that included 45,000 practices and 6,000 contact games. The COVID19 positivity rate went down compared to the previous 10 weeks of no games.

We only hear about the two percent of games in the U.S. or players that test positive for COVID19. There hasn’t been a confirmed case of community spread that I have found from a high school game.

I look every day, because I ask people daily: What do you think? I listen, learn, look at the studies and I’ve gone to other states to watch people movement and protocols in place.

I’ve gone to Florida, Texas, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa and watched. Each day, I make sure I talk to a new medical professional and ask. I play both sides, because the truth is always in the middle. I talk to school supts., principals, athletic directors, coaches and school board members.

One day, Dr. Ezike stands in front of cameras and says she working with IHSA. The next day, Gov. Pritzker says there are no ongoing talks, as Dr. Ezike stands right there. Some print media members, who have been two steps behind on the story from the start, take things for face value. Get to work, file the FOIA and see for yourself.

I have, and that’s why I just smirk reading some of your stories because you’re taking things at face value and not digging. It’s a joke, because your own personal bias is getting in the way of you being a balanced journalist. Stop being lazy.

It’s been a fluid year. We learn and adjust. Just as we’ve seen cross-country runners and teams get COVID19 this fall season, it’s going to happen. Nothing is 100 percent perfect in life.  

But it’s not happening anywhere near – not even close – to what some of the doubters are saying. It’s a polarizing topic, especially because a lot people have checked out mentally from 2020. If this year has been mentally draining for adults, how can any adult dismiss the mental impact on teenagers?

That’s ignorant and mind blowing when you use common sense to think about it.

By the time student athletes get back on the field in Illinois, odds are there won’t be much left from the $3 billion in scholarship money awarded each year. Two national signing days will be over, meaning a good number of the 350,000 IHSA student athletes in Illinois will have missed out on a stretch when all eyes are on those playing.

Reports have pointed to about $400 million in athletic scholarships going to Illinois student athletes each year. People need to remember; this is not just about your premier Division-I prospect.

This is about the middle of the road – the majority – who play Division III or NAIA and get money to attend college and play sports.

So maybe you have a bias against football, OK – fine.

Nevada just announced the return of volleyball, cheerleading and soccer – making those low-risk sports. Volleyball, cheerleading and soccer are still sidelined in Illinois.  

New York is playing field hockey and soccer, where Illinois isn’t. Illinois still has not provided a baseline for when sports can resume or shown data showing a COVID19 increase. 

I’ll leave you with this:

*Kids can’t play contact youth sports in Illinois, but it’s OK to have kids and families traveling to states with higher COVID19 positivity rates, play youth contact sports and come back?

*We can have private schools bring kids to schools from all over, intermix them at school and then go back to their communities each day?

*The IHSA can run a cross-country sectional meet that is bringing student athletes from Southern Illinois and the Chicago area together, but there aren’t supposed to be tournaments per the state of Illinois?

I’m empathic, I’m understanding and I’ve listened.

But who are you crapping?

It’s time for people to be selfless with an hour of their lives and standup at 7 p.m. Friday night at Denning Park in LaGrange – across from Lyons Township South High School.

Just like on the field, any one moment could be the momentum changer in the game of life to make a difference for your child, your neighbor’s child or a child who you’ve never met that needs an opportunity.

Your time is free, and it’s needed now for 10s of 1,000s of student athletes and their families in Illinois.

Put up or shut up.

Bio on columnist: Joe Trost is an award-winning reporter: Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune and ESPN.com. Locally, he is a three-time statewide IHSSCA Media Person of the Year; and founding board member of Buddy’s HELPERS, which engages and educates student athletes about Making A Difference On AND Off The Field.