LANSING – The message rang across the steps of the State Capitol building in Lansing on Saturday afternoon like a buzzer in a silent gymnasium.
Thousands of high school coaches, players and parents across Michigan rallied together under the organization of the ‘Let Them Play’ group to deliver a battle cry against the lingering suspension of winter contract sports such as basketball, ice hockey, wrestling and competitive cheer.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced on Jan. 22, under the guidance of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, that the beginning of indoor contact sports would be pushed back from Feb. 1 to Feb. 21.
Since that time, the ‘Let Them Play’ group has seen its membership expand to more than 36,000 people across the state, as mounting frustration has pushed many involved in interscholastic athletics to make their voices heard.
“There were easily 2,000 people here from across the state to show their support and some people from the (Upper Pennisula) drove nine hours just to be here today,” said event organizer Jayme McElvany. “The crowd was incredible and the kids who got up and spoke really showcased the emotions that everyone is going through right now.
“I feel like a mom to 60,000 kids right now and I couldn’t be prouder of all of them for continuing to battle for their right to play organized youth sports. I’m fighting for all of them and we are working together to do what is right and let them play again.”
McElvany, a Monroe business owner and mother of Milan High School student-athlete Cole McElvany, has spearheaded two previous rallies at the State Capitol that have produced positive results.
The group held its first rally on Aug. 28, 2020, when fall sports such as football, volleyball and soccer were suspended from competing. After more than 500 supporters joined the initial rally, the fall sports season was reinstated six days later.
A second rally was held on Dec. 11, 2020, after sports such as football, volleyball and girls swimming were paused by Whitmer and the MDHHS on Nov. 15 during the final stages of their respective state tournaments. The group hosted 22 speakers and drew another large crowd of more than 500 people and helped create momentum that brought back those sports in January.
“If you can ignore 2,000 kids screaming and begging for you to let them play sports again, that’s unexplainable,” said McElvany. “I’ve been adamant about keeping these rallies away from politics and creating a friendly message that is simply asking for Gov. Whitmer to work with us to make this possible.
“There were no political signs, there were no political flags, and there was no divisiveness out here today. We are fighting together as one group and that’s what our state government needs to see and what our nation needs to see right now.
“Our hope is that this event shows our state government and the health department that we will do whatever it takes to play sports again. If they heard any of these brave young kids that came up here and spoke today, I don’t know how you can disagree.”
Easily 2,000+ people here at the State Capitol for the Let Them Play rally despite 20 degree temperatures pic.twitter.com/uqlkbOvSBL
— Josh VanDyke (@JoshVanDykeJAX) January 30, 2021
The event started at noon and lasted more than two hours, as more than 25 players, coaches, parents and administrators spoke out about the effects the season suspension has had on their communities, schools and the mental health of student-athletes across Michigan.
Rep. Bill Huzinga, accompanied by Senator Dale Zorn, spoke to the crowd about how suicide rates amongst teenagers during the pandemic have skyrocketed. Ryan McNeil, a wrestler at Montrose High School, admitted to the crowd during his speech that he, too, struggled to find a reason to carry on at times.
“I haven’t even told my parents this, but when sports got taken away from us, I definitely fell into a dark place,” he told the crowd. “I kind of thought that there was nothing left in life for me, but thankfully, my great teammates, coaches and friends helped me along the way. That cannot be said for every other athlete in this state.”
Winter contact sports have been allowed to participate in non-contact drills and socially distanced team activities since Jan. 16, but for high school seniors Coopersville’s Ethan Coady, the wait to return to organized competition just feels like a carrot being dangled in front of a racehorse.
“It’s not the same,” he said of non-contact practices. “It feels more like a track practice than a basketball practice, because we are just running and shooting and staying distanced from each other the whole time. It sucks seeing my teammates and so many other athletes out there struggle and not be in a good spot, so I wanted to be proactive and get involved.
“We just want to get back to a normal life and part of that is bringing sports back.”
Saturday’s rally may only be the beginning of a longer battle for McElvany, as the Let Them Play group has gained non-profit status, raised more than $50,000 through a GoFundMe page and retained Lansing attorney Peter Ruddell to pursue legal action against the state if the Feb. 21 deadline is not rescinded by the end of the weekend.
“We were going to file it a couple of days ago, but we were having positive discussions with the health department and decided we would wait and see how this rally would change the momentum in this fight to bring sports back,” said McElvany. “We don’t want to file this lawsuit, but we are going to keep pushing for our kids. I’m asking Gov. Whitmer to put our differences aside and come together and do the right thing for these kids.”
One of the biggest causes of frustration for those in attendance on Saturday is the science and data that was gathered when the MDHSS and the Michigan High School Athletic Association conducted 30,000 tests during its initial pilot-testing program that was conducted in December. According to MHSAA executive director Mark Uyl, those tests came back with a negative rate of 99.8 percent.
During a virtual press conference on Friday morning, Uyl stated that 38 other states are currently competing in winter sports, including bordering states such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio. Uyl also estimated that around 60,000 student-athletes in Michigan participate in basketball, wrestling, hockey and competitive cheer.
For Shannon Badgero, the girls varsity soccer coach at Tri-Unity Christian and board member of the ‘Let Them Play’ group, seeing her senior daughter, Nataleigh, continue to have opportunities taken away from her was enough to make her want to scream.
“I’ve got a senior daughter who has already lost her junior season of soccer and now she’s at risk of losing her senior season of basketball,” she said. “It’s infuriating at times because these kids are at risk of losing everything they’ve been working for since they were kids and that’s unacceptable in my eyes.”
As she took in the crowd that filled the lawn at the State Capitol building on Saturday, Badgero was moved by the passion that so many others displayed.
“I don’t know if there are adjectives to describe it,” she said. “It’s just very moving to be a part of this and to hear some of these kids’ stories is just heartbreaking. I don’t think some people realize how important sports are in some people’s lives and the opportunities that sports can give people.”