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Home Opinion Opinion: Gov. Lee, it's time to do right by Tennessee's high school...

Opinion: Gov. Lee, it’s time to do right by Tennessee’s high school cheerleaders

Scott High senior cheerleader McKinlee Byrd is pictured with her parents, Gary and Natasha Byrd, during Senior Night festivities on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Byrd is Scott High’s only senior cheerleader | LeEtta Boyatt/IH

Prior to the start of Friday’s District 4-AA showdown with Kingston, Scott High held its annual Senior Night festivities, honoring its senior student-athletes who participate in winter sports, basketball and cheerleading.

In addition to two members of the girls’ basketball team and four members of the boys’ basketball team, the Highlanders honored their only senior cheerleader, McKinlee Byrd.

The girls basketball players were in uniform because they had just completed a thrilling upset win. The boys basketball players were in uniform because they were about to play. Byrd was in uniform, too. But she wasn’t there to cheer. She was simply there to be honored.

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Byrd and her fellow cheerleaders at Scott High, as well as those at Oneida and across the state, haven’t cheered at a basketball game since before Christmas. And, barring a change of heart from Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, her cheer career is effectively over.

Gov. Lee’s Executive Order 74 extended restrictions on who can attend indoor high school sporting events through Feb. 27. Among those restrictions are a participation ban for cheerleaders, dance teams and pep bands.

Even if Gov. Lee lifts the restrictions on Feb. 27, most basketball teams will have concluded their season by that point. So, in effect, the cheer season is over for most high school cheerleaders in Tennessee. And because most of them didn’t get to cheer at away games even during football season, their season consisted of only a handful of total games between the football and basketball seasons.

We are 10 months into the coronavirus pandemic, and life is slowly returning to normal. That’s a relative term, of course. Masks are still commonly being worn — mandated in some places — and social distancing is still with us, but the shutdowns that were commonplace last spring have largely ended. Barbershops have long since reopened, many restaurants are back to 100% capacity, tanning sessions are being booked, schools have resumed, and sporting events are being played.

Ten months in, there is literally one group of people — young or old — in the State of Tennessee who are being told, “No, you can’t do that.” High school cheerleaders.

Let that sink in.

Cheerleaders can attend class for seven hours each day, they can walk the halls of schools where hundreds or thousands of their fellow students are present, but they can’t stand and cheer at the end of a gymnasium where there are only a couple of hundred people in attendance at most.

Last spring, when Covid-19 was still a major unknown and we were still operating under the guise of being able to contain it, we shut down all sports. The high school basketball state tournaments were canceled. Even outdoor spring sports were canceled. At the time, the decision seemed justified. With the benefit of hindsight, it was anything but. We canceled the basketball state tournaments over a few dozen cases in a handful of Tennessee counties. We’re now playing basketball with more than 50,000 active cases of the virus across every county in the state. And canceling outside sports like soccer, baseball and softball was nothing short of silly. We know that now, and that’s why sports have resumed. Football season and soccer season went off without a hitch. Now that colder weather has set in, basketball players are playing, wrestlers are wrestling … but cheerleaders can’t cheer.

Is it any wonder that cheerleaders feel singled out? That they feel this is unfair?

Weak explanations have been offered for Gov. Lee’s decision to exclude cheerleaders from participation. State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, offered a lame defense of the governor on Saturday, tweeting an official explanation from the governor’s office that stated, “…it is temporarily necessary for the time being, based on current medical and public health advice, to limit such activities and the presence of additional attendees at indoor sports and other events.”

On Tuesday, when Gov. Lee’s latest executive order was signed, TSSAA offered this guidance to schools: “Our understanding from the Governor’s Office is that this provision was a risk-based decision at this critical time based on the best medical and CDC information and guidance available regarding the spread of Covid-19 primarily through respiratory droplets, with cheerleading posing a particularly high degree of risk because it involves projected voices within a confined indoor space for an extended period of time.”

Hogwash. Simply hogwash.

Science is pretty clear that projected voices do cause an increased spread of respiratory droplets which could contain the coronavirus.

But guess what else causes an increased spread of respiratory droplets which could contain the coronavirus? Heavy breathing, which happens with physical exertion like playing basketball. Players spend three hours hustling, spitting and spreading respiratory droplets, even without meaning to. And none of us have ever been to a basketball game where the fans weren’t using “projected voices” in the stands. There’s no mandate for fans to sit quietly and simply clap. Fans are yelling for their kids, at the referees, and spreading respiratory droplets every time they open their mouths. There are mask mandates in place for fans at basketball games — but many cheerleading squads were also wearing masks before the governor banned their attendance at games.

The argument goes deeper than that, however. Scott High Principal Melissa Rector — whose daughter is a sophomore on the school’s cheerleading squad — was precise in her tweet on Saturday: “Strange how @GovBilllee wants to cite ‘science’ for this one minor scenario but ignores it in other situations, saying ‘local leaders’ are best to make these decisions. Then why can’t LEAs set up safe guidelines for cheer, just like we have for the entire student body? #oddflex”

Rector is right. Lee is being ridiculously hypocritical in his approach. He has refused to implement a statewide mask mandate despite a scientific consensus that masks help slow the spread of coronavirus. He has said that county mayors should make decisions on masks for each of their counties. But on the subject of cheerleading, he has jerked the decision away from local school administrators and boards of education, citing science as a reason to ban cheerleaders from participation.

So many of the governor’s decisions during this pandemic have felt arbitrary. There’s no consistency. Last spring, for example, Lee left an executive order in place that ordered barbershops closed in rural Tennessee, even as most other businesses reopened and as barbershops in some of the state’s urban areas — where covid infection rates were far higher at the time — were reopening.

It is beyond infuriating that Gov. Lee has singled out cheerleaders — and dance teams and pep bands — in his approach to fighting this virus, while refusing to implement a mask mandate that could actually make a difference. But his reasoning is pretty clear: implementing a mask mandate would cause terrific political blowback in an extremely conservative state, and he’s not willing to fight that fight. There aren’t many cheerleaders or cheerleading parents, however, so he’s not risking fallout by targeting cheerleaders.

The general lack of outrage over this decision is proof enough of that. Cheerleaders and their parents are rightfully upset, but the public as a whole isn’t nearly as irate as they would be if basketball games themselves were canceled. But right is right and wrong is wrong. And as a parent of two basketball players who doesn’t have a cheerleader, I want to be first in line to say this is outrageous.

Scott High freshman cheerleader Braylon Byrd (right) joined her sister, senior McKinlee Byrd, for Senior Night at the school on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Afterward, she posted a picture on Instagram to plead with Gov. Bill Lee to rescind an executive order prohibiting cheerleaders from participating at high school basketball games.

At Scott High, as Byrd was being recognized — with her parents, Gary and Natasha Byrd of Oneida — on Senior Night, her younger sister was also in attendance. Braylon Byrd posted a picture with her sister on Instagram after the game, with a plea to Gov. Lee. “This isn’t fair,” she said, adding the hashtag #letuscheer.

It’s not fair. And the Byrd sisters know that better than most.

Braylon is a freshman at Scott High this season. She had never gotten the opportunity to cheer with her older sister before; McKinlee was off to high school by the time Braylon joined the middle school cheer squad at Huntsville Middle. This was supposed to be the one and only opportunity for the sisters to cheer together — for their parents and grandparents to watch them cheer together. Instead, that opportunity was cut short by an executive order from the governor that simply does not make sense.

The Byrds are far from the only cheerleaders who have used social media to make pleas to Gov. Lee. Also on Friday, Oneida High School cheerleader Presley Ooten used Facebook to post a picture of her squad. Presley, like Braylon, is a freshman. The color of their uniforms is different, but the plea was the same. “Dear Governor Bill Lee, PLEASE LET US CHEER,” Presley said.

Oneida High School freshman cheerleader Presley Ooten posted a picture of herself and her squad on Facebook on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, urging Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to reconsider his ban on cheerleader participation at high school basketball games.

So far, those pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The Governor’s Office explanation offered by Rep. Zachary on Saturday cited the need to “limit…the presence of additional attendees” at basketball games, while Zachary himself pointed out that Executive Order 74 didn’t place further restrictions on cheerleaders. That much is true: Executive Order 74 only continued the existing restrictions. But one thing Executive Order 74 did do was allow additional attendees at basketball games by opening up attendance to grandparents and school staff, while continuing to prohibit participation by cheerleaders.

This isn’t an argument against grandparents or school staff being in attendance at games; both groups should be allowed to attend. But if science argues against additional attendees, cheerleaders should have been allowed back before either of those groups. That’s only fair.

Last spring, when the governor arbitrarily left close-contact businesses like barbershops closed in rural Tennessee, Republican leaders stepped up to put pressure on his office, and Lee ultimately relented, allowing those businesses to reopen.

It’s time for State Sen. Ken Yager and State Rep. Kelly Keisling to step up again and demand that Gov. Lee rescind Executive Order 74’s provision that bans cheerleader participation. Fair is fair, and right is right. And making high school cheerleaders — especially those who are seniors and won’t have another opportunity to cheer — the only group of people who can’t participate in their sport or extra-curricular activity is neither fair nor right.

Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com.
Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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