Why youth sports may have an easier time returning to action than the pros

tfitzpatrick//May 26, 2020

Why youth sports may have an easier time returning to action than the pros

tfitzpatrick//May 26, 2020

The latest plan to bring back Major League Baseball is 67 pages, with requirements for multiple daily temperature screenings for every player, and an estimated 10,000 COVID-19 tests every week.

For the NBA, returning to play might mean convening players and coaches in one “bubble site,” perhaps in Florida or Las Vegas.

But for the estimated 20 million kids who play organized sports every year, the path back to the field or court is different – and, potentially, more complicated.

As stay-at-home orders are lifted around the country and states begin rolling out reopening plans, youth sports leagues and organizers are grappling with when and how to return to play without the same financial resources – and, in many cases, centralized guidance – as their professional counterparts.

A local recreational league does not have access to thousands of coronavirus tests, or extensive personal protective equipment. And the varying transmission risks from state to state, and sport to sport, will likely lead to a patchwork system in which individual leagues are left to figure out whether they can safely restart, and parents are left to decide whether their kids can participate.

“This is uncharted waters for us,” said Gil Fried, a professor of sports management at the University of New Haven. “When push comes to shove, it’s all going to be at the local level. What’s the tolerance of people at the local level?”

Some municipalities are already asking those questions of their residents, even as most youth sports leagues – and facilities that host them – remain dormant.

Ohio’s Department of Health, for example, announced that youth leagues for “non-contact and limited-contact sports” will be able to restart next week. Texas will allow youth sports practices to return by the end of the month, followed by games in mid-June. And in Missouri, one local tournament operator has already come back, hosting 47 teams and more than 550 kids at two venues earlier this month.

Public health experts recommend a phased return to action, beginning with individual drills and practices before progressing to games and local tournaments. With each step, there is also an additional level of risk, according to guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week.

Travel sports leagues and tournaments, the most competitive and most expensive branch of the youth sports world, are categorized by the CDC as “highest risk” because they could lead to the transmission of COVID-19 between communities.

“This is the case particularly if a team from an area with high levels of COVID-19 competes with a team from an area with low levels of the virus,” the CDC wrote.

Return to play will also likely vary from sport to sport. The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank, has been rolling out sport-specific guidance as part of its “Return to Play” initiative in recent weeks. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has issued its own recommendations, as well.

“Those sports that are likely to have a lot of contact – basketball, football, soccer – are ones where there’s a greater potential, if somebody’s infected, for spread from person to person,” said Davidson Hamer, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health and School of Medicine and physician at Boston Medical Center. “Other sports like tennis, it’s a lot easier to keep social distancing.”

Because many youth sports leagues do not fall under a national governing body, decisions about returning to play will likely be based on local and state recommendations. It might be safer for a recreational baseball league in one state to return in June, while another state must wait until July.

But this is actually one advantage that youth sports have over professional sports, according to Lauren Sauer, the director of operations with the Johns Hopkins Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response.

“I think it’s very likely that youth sports will return before national level sports,” Sauer said during a webinar hosted by The Aspen Institute last week. “Youth sports are inherently more adaptable in the way that they can change the rules and regulations of the game, how they can have regionality to where they can be conducted and how they can quickly pause and restart activities.

“I think the adaptability and the flexibility of how youth sports are implemented, so to speak, actually works to (their) benefit.”

There are still some challenges, however.

Ryan Demmer, an assistant professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, noted that it is still unclear how coronavirus affects kids. Though they are not being hospitalized or dying at the same rates as other segments of the population, he said, they are not immune.

There are questions about transmissibility and asymptomatic carriage, for example. How likely are kids to spread COVID-19 between themselves? And how likely are they to transmit it to their siblings or parents, even with mild or no symptoms?

“I just think we need to be really cautious about it,” Demmer said. “We’re at a point where it’s still fairly risky, because we really haven’t seen testing to a degree where we can do more testing in these settings where groups are coming together.”

Demmer also noted that it could also be difficult to enforce even modified rules at games, such as physical distancing, because many kids don’t perceive the threat of COVID-19 in the same way as adults. And that means parents need to understand the risks.

As the father of three kids himself, Demmer said he would love to see youth sports return in full this summer. He’d love to be able to watch his teenage daughter get back on the volleyball court, and his youngest son play organized soccer for the first time.

But only when it’s safe.

“It’s hard to say no to your kids, especially in this moment. They’re giving up a lot,” he said. “(But) we’re really only two months into this, as a nation. … In terms of living it, experiencing it, getting data and trying to understand it, we’re very early on.”

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