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The case for high school sports has never been more clear

The strain on everyone has been palpable. Whether in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Atlanta, or Los Angeles. The disturbing images that have filled TV screens and Social Media feeds from Minneapolis, Georgia, and other locales have been traumatic. The ensuing outcry has resulted in demonstrations and protests around the country that have teetered on and at times crossed over to violence and destruction.

A nation that was struggling for months with how to confront and deal with the coronavirus pandemic has become glued to the sights of hundreds of thousands of people filling the streets, with entire cities on edge.

The challenges with how to process all of this can be overwhelming for even the best-equipped adults. For young people around the US, that has become an impossible task.

It is times like these that serve as vital reminders of how important sports, and especially high school sports, can and should be.

There are numerous studies that show the positive impacts of extracurricular activities on academic achievement, mental health, long-term physical health, and aversion to high-risk behaviors.

But this, this goes beyond those quantifiable benefits and gets to the heart of what sports participation is all about.

Athletic teams, including and especially those at the high school level, are among the most diverse places in all of society. Different backgrounds, ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, religions, and personalities. There are conflicting egos and differing motivations to be sure, but the sense of unity, community, and family is unlike almost anywhere else.

When you join an athletic team, you are forced to deal with success and failure. You are required to face obstacles. You must not only tolerate but accept and embrace all of your teammates to truly move forward and become a successful unit. You must look them in the eye, acknowledge your differences, and recognize you cannot do it alone. You must lean on each other, trust each other, be vulnerable for each other. 

There are unique bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood developed over countless hours and years of practice, games, bus rides, summer tournaments, and many other private, personal moments.

Unfortunately, with sports shut down, the in-person opportunities for players and coaches to come together have been eliminated. For many young people, their sports team is their refuge, their strength, their strongest support group. 

While separated, athletic teams can still be resources for young people to lean on to discuss their feelings and emotions, fears and frustrations, hope and change. 

We live in a turbulent time where concepts that have been and should be universally accepted and encouraged have been hijacked by those on all ends of the political, social, and philosophical spectrum to be used as wedges to divide. Ideas like tolerance, equality, justice, due process, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. That everyone should have the ability to pursue life, liberty, and happiness without fear of violence, destruction, and harassment of themselves, their property, and their livelihoods. 

There are those that would attempt to paint every side of every issue in binary terms, where those that agree with their view are good and those that disagree are bad, with no in between, no nuance, no attempt to understand those on the other side. Today's "cancel culture" has reinforced this concept and made real dialogue of uncomfortable issues much more difficult.

As emotions run high, it can be easy to slip further into our own world views and cling to our previous personal beliefs, avoiding the opportunity to truly listen, learn, and grow.

This is where coaches can and should step in to help create open and honest dialogues amongst their athletes.

To provide a supportive environment where players can come together, even if just virtually, to share their thoughts, reactions, and feelings. To move beyond the anger, sadness, and confusion and begin to process their experiences and find ways to move forward.

There are a great many outstanding coaches who would normally have taken this time to gather their teams in the locker room or on the practice field or court to discuss recent events and reactions to them, understanding that the current situation is so much bigger than sports. To facilitate difficult discussions around race, identity, and humanity. To allow students of color to share their experiences with those whose backgrounds have not included the same challenges. To help everyone find constructive and meaningful opportunities to make the kinds of personal and societal changes they would like to see in the world. Even if these opportunities to connect with student-athletes cannot be held in person, they should be made possible in some fashion.

Sports have an incredible ability to help bridge the gaps between people of all backgrounds. High school sports are one of the most local, most direct, and most effective ways to make this happen. Their importance for the young people around the USA has never been highlighted so clearly, and is a reminder of why it is so important for leaders around the country to find a path for the return of high school sports in the fall.