Let us play: High school athletes rally at the Capitol to restart sports seasons

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(Editor’s update: On Feb. 4, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced indoor contact school sports may resume under proper precautions. A new state health order allows for practices and competitions for basketball, hockey and competitive cheer.)

Michigan high school athletes and supporters rallied at the Capitol Jan. 30, appealing to the governor to end the COVID postponement of sports.

Hundreds of young people, mostly masked and wearing their school colors, was peaceful, in contrast to recent rallies at this and other Capitols. The students said sports keep them engaged in school, lift their mental health in dark times and help some of them go into college.

Several who attended said they want Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to acknowledge their #letusplay #letthemplay peaceful demonstration and their call for a quick return to sports.

These interviews came after the rally and were done by Michigan State Journalism students who saw social media posts from the rally. That is the source of some of the photos.

Speaking made me proud

Gabby Ditto, Brighton High School senior

“It was really great to get to be a voice … for student athletes across Michigan.

“I’m not really a big public-speaking person, but being able to speak on behalf of everybody made me really proud, like, the opportunity was just so great.

“Not having a senior season is really affecting them (student athletes) for scouting opportunities where, like, other states are all playing and they’re not getting equal opportunities.”

— Madelyn Darbonne

Tougher on younger ones

Jaylen Hodges, Bridgeport High School

Jaylen Hodges, Bridgeport High School senior 

“I wouldn’t say it’s been tough for me because I kind of have my mind made up on where I want to go to college. My senior year I really wanted to just play for fun, but for other kids I know. It’s probably tough on them.

“Some states weren’t shut down, so I got to play basketball. I was in Indiana for  most of the summer. That’s where I picked up most of my offers.” 

— Janelle James

Mary Lengemann of Imlay City High School spoke up at the rally for athletes.

Hear our call; notice us

Mary Lengemann, Imlay City High School, basketball track, cross-country

“I participated because I felt like we can play school sports safely, and I really believe that and I think it’s a good way for our voices to be heard as youth in Michigan. I was a speaker there, so I was really happy that I was able to do that, and also I just love sports so I felt like I had to fight for that.

“I hope that Gov. Whitmer No. 1 at least gives us a response. It’s a very unique thing that we were able to get thousands of people and athletes together to support a movement. I mean stuff like that doesn’t just happen in a normal year, and I hope that she at least acknowledges that and responds to us because … athletes deserve recognition for speaking up. Also, I hope she moves the start date up … ASAP.

“It was very good, it was a very positive environment. Everybody wore their masks. I felt very safe.

“Everybody was very kind, nobody said anything politically, it was just about athletes and playing sports. So I had a great time and it was a really good environment.” 

Dina Kaur

Sports can save lives

Morgan Louwers, Dakota High School

“I decided to attend the rally for my friends and classmates who are wanting to play their winter sports. I play a spring sport, so I know if winter sports keep getting pushed back, spring sports will move with it.

“It was really important to go to the rally for me because I know of several people who have ended their own lives because of the world we live in, and some of them were athletes. Because they didn’t have that outlet, they couldn’t keep going. If giving sports back to high school athletes means saving lives, the governor should have already been letting us play.

“Getting my season back is very important to me because it is not about the game. Iit is about having somewhere to be, and some kids need an outlet like that, which is a part of the reason why the depression rate is so high for teenagers.

“Going to the Capitol it was really cool to see how many people actually showed up from around the state. Some people drove all the way down from the U.P., so it was really nice to see the dedication and commitment from all of the other athletes in Michigan.”

— Olivia Mazzola

No word from the governor

Kevin Everhart, Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School

For students who want to take sports and “play at the next level, we’re at a real disadvantage right now in Michigan with scholarship opportunities. Other states are playing and getting looked at, while we’re stuck here, just being overlooked by a lot of colleges. So we have a huge disadvantage. But then on top of that, just in general, like sports are just so important to kids our age mental health. And like just, just daily motivation that it gives you something to look forward to, to be around people, to be around a culture where everybody’s striving for the same thing.

 “Without sports, I mean, I’ve even noticed myself just a lack of motivation. Every day when I’m getting up and going to school, like, my days, I just don’t get out of bed, because there’s really nothing to look forward to.

“Everybody just kept flooding in. And it was awesome to see just how many people care about it, and how many people actually care about us. I just wish our governor is on the same page. It’s been 72 hours since the rally, and we still haven’t gotten even the smallest acknowledgement. She’s completely ignored us.”

Wendy Guzman

We expressed without hate

Cora Howe, Gull Lake High School senior, basketball 

“For athletes, I think a lot of people are lost right now without sports, because it’s what we love to do. It’s like … what do we do?”

“We were all encouraging each other and the speeches that people gave were honestly moving.

“There was no politics, there was no hate … we just wanted to express how we felt, without any hate.”

— Leah Ritchie 

Empowering, emotional

Alyssa Bode, McBain High School senior 

“I felt that the peaceful protest in Lansing was an amazing experience for all Michigan sports players. The protest was empowering, inspirational and even emotional. It was nice being able to hear the voices of the kids and even adults that were there, to know how many people care about us being able to play. 

“It feels that my school and all the other schools that were able to make it, were a part of history being made. I hope the protest helped more people see what sports mean to us and why we need them.”

Stephanie Lam

We can play safely

Cora Howe, Gull Lake High School, Richland, Michigan 

“We are all super close. We are literally a family. It sucks because it is the last time that we will all be able to play together.

“I understand that COVID is a serious thing. There’s lots of families that have been devastated from it. But at this point, every other state is opening up and every other state has a start date for their sport. Even last fall volleyball was playing and those seniors got to play the sport they have been playing their entire life.  With wearing masks and not having fans, we can make it so the COVID rates don’t peak.

“If you look at the numbers, just from us athletes, it’s a small percentage of people who have gotten COVID.” 

— Derek Bonner

In support of Ethan Coady
There were signs in support of basketball player Ethan Coady.

I was heartbroken

Nash Merkins, Coopersville High School sophomore, football 

“I play football, so our season was called off for about a week or so and I was heartbroken. Thankfully, it got called back on and we got to play 6/9 of our games. I am very thankful I was able to play six games because football keeps me away from the struggles of home/school. I’m sure many young athletes can agree with me on that.

“When I was told that I wasn’t going to be having a football season, I was heartbroken. It instantly put me in a bad mood and all I was left thinking was how am I supposed to deal with this? Football for me is a way to stay active and have fun with my friends, because a lot of my friends are also my teammates. It very negatively affected my happiness and mental health.

“Ethan Coady is a very very good friend of mine and he was the one who kind of started the rally. Although I don’t play basketball, I have friends who play and absolutely love it and I would be sad for them if they couldn’t play. I went to the rally to show them how much I supported them and I tried my best with them to get their season back. I also know … that some high school athletes depend on sports to go to college. I feel for every young athlete, especially seniors who were banking on getting a scholarship to play basketball.

“I know this is kind of repetitive, but it really does break my heart that this is happening.”

— Lucy VanRegenmorter

Coopersville basketball player Ethan Coady speaks at the Michigan Capitol on behalf of sidelined high school athletes.

Don’t ignore mental health

Ethan Coady, Coopersville High School senior, basketball

 “I was trying to get the point across that the mental health of athletes matters, and we can’t keep ignoring it.”

“I would really like to see the winter sports season resume for all athletes.” 

— Anna Mizerowski

Lots of peaceful energy

Olivia Stam, Otsego High School 

The “biggest thing was how excited people were at the rally. There were a ton of signs, a lot of energy there, but it was all peaceful. That was the biggest thing.” 

— Joseph Dungerow

Adam Cassel photo

People will fight for us

Adam Cassel

“The Let Them Play movement advocating for mental health of student athletes is important because it reminds us kids that someone cares and a group of people is fighting for us.” 

—Carter Landis

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