On Monday, the high school basketball regular season will resume for teams throughout Tennessee. Some have been in action in holiday tournaments throughout the Christmas break. Others — like both Scott High and Oneida — have been off for the duration of the two-week break (the Highlanders have been off even longer than that) while biding their time until they get back on the court.
Either way, Monday night’s games feels very much like a reboot for the high school basketball season, which once seemed much in doubt as coronavirus cases exploded across Tennessee.
At least, it’s going to feel like a reboot for some. When Oneida hosts York Institute on Monday evening, cheerleaders won’t be in the gym. Nor will they be present on Tuesday, when Scott High travels to Cosby, or at any other game being played in Tennessee this week.
Last month, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order that — among other things — allows high school basketball to continue amid the Covid-19 surge. But it places strict limits on who can attend games. Parents of players, and their siblings who live at home, are on the list. So are first responders. And media and college scouts who are there for professional purposes. And necessary game personnel.
Not on the list are cheerleaders, dance teams or pep bands.
Understanding that this is going to fall on deaf ears — a lot of people have asked a lot of things of Gov. Lee since this pandemic began, and the governor has proven unwilling to budge on most issues except when lawmakers have teamed up to apply pressure — there’s a question that deserves to be asked: What part of this is fair?
Restricting attendance for basketball games is fair. Tennesseans are dying of coronavirus at a faster rate now than at any point since the pandemic began in March. Hospitals are near capacity in most parts of the state. And medical professionals fear that another surge of cases may be coming due to Christmas and New Year’s get-togethers. Action is needed to slow the spread of this virus.
That means grandparents, aunts, uncles and fans in general aren’t going to be able to attend games through at least Jan. 19 — when the governor’s order is currently set to expire. Former players aren’t going to be able to attend. Even parents of JV players aren’t going to be able to attend if there isn’t a JV game scheduled for the same night.
That’s going to be tough on a lot of people, and it’s extremely unfortunate. But it will also limit attendance sufficiently to allow everyone in the gym enough space to spread out and stay safe. Masks are also mandated by TSSAA policy. Whether schools will actually enforce the mandate remains to be seen. Prior to Christmas, few did. Scott High has said law enforcement officers who are working as game security personnel will enforce mask-wearing at its games (masks must be worn at all times except when attendees are seated with members of their household, away from other spectators). Other schools should follow suit.
There’s no reason games cannot continue — and safely — if everyone is at least six feet apart and wearing masks. Our goal in these difficult times should be to take reasonable precautions against the spread of coronavirus while also attempting to preserve some sense of normalcy. That’s why the hunker-down mentality that was in place back in the spring, in the early days of the pandemic, no longer applies. Churches have re-opened, non-essential retail stores have reopened … and sports have resumed.
That’s as it should be. There are a lot of kids who thrive on sports. Extra-curricular activities are their motivation to keep up their grades and eventually graduate. As the father of one of Scott County’s stand-out basketball players said last week, “This isn’t about you, me, or any other adult. It’s about these kids.” Our goal should be to implement safety measures while not taking anything more away from the kids than we have to.
But that applies to all the kids — not just basketball players.
Cheerleaders are just as much a team as the basketball players. The argument about whether cheerleading is a true “sport” has been beaten like the proverbial dead horse. But that’s beside the point. Cheerleading is an extra-curricular activity, and it is every bit as legitimate as basketball. Cheerleaders condition, just like basketball players. They give up parts of their summers, just like basketball players. They practice, just like basketball players.
Once you have two teams of 15 or so players each inside a gym, adding 10 or 12 cheerleaders from each team is not going to make a huge difference. If it’s all about numbers, perhaps TSSAA and Gov. Lee should further restrict spectators — perhaps going the Knox County route of allowing only two attendees per player — in order to open up enough space for cheerleaders to participate.
The return of high school basketball is welcomed. For a lot of last year’s seniors, including Oneida’s Dalton Yancey, Elijah West and Jordan Perry, we took away the opportunity to compete for a state championship last spring. We also took away spring sports. In hindsight, neither move was necessary.
The NCAA has opted to give its student-athletes a free year of eligibility in all sports. High school student-athletes don’t get that same opportunity. This year’s seniors are going to graduate in May, whether or not they get to play this season. For seniors like Scott High’s Cash Tucker and Julia Butts, and Oneida’s Nathan Bowling and Katelyn Stiltner, and others, this is it. Some of them will never put on a basketball uniform again after this season ends, whenever that is. (And some of them have an opportunity to earn a scholarship to continue playing at the next level.) That’s a powerful argument for doing everything we can to safely let kids play.
But how about the senior cheerleaders, like Scott High’s McKinlee Byrd or Oneida’s Drew Dixon, and the others? This is it for them, as well. Whenever the last basketball game is played, their cheer careers are finished. And if the governor extends his order after Jan. 19 without an exception for cheerleaders, their careers will have already ended.
This is an outrageously unfair decision on behalf of the governor’s office and TSSAA. It is a clear double-standard that is being implemented, discriminating against cheerleaders who are involved in extra-curricular school activities every bit as legitimate as team sports.
Fairness demands that this issue be revisited.