Lawsuit suggests stoppage in Michigan high school sports may have led to teen’s death

Let Them Play, Inc. files suit against MDHHS director over high school sports ban amid COVID pandemic

Ice hockey (Pixlr)

A lawsuit against the state of Michigan’s health director claims the state’s stoppage of high school sports amid the pandemic may have directly led to the tragic death of a teen hockey player.

The suit filed in the Michigan Court of Claims is on behalf of a list of Michigan high school athletes and their families -- collectively “Let Them Play Michigan, Inc.” -- and the Michigan Amateur Youth Hockey League (MAYHL). They want high school sports including basketball, wrestling, hockey and competitive cheer to resume immediately.

One of those athletes is Brennan Dethloff, an 18-year-old hockey player at Mona Shores High School who died after a car crash Jan. 18. The lawsuit says Dethloff died from injuries suffered in the crash after “succumbing to the mental struggles he endured from the continued delays in winter sports in Michigan.”

Other plaintiffs include high school athletes who have been unable to compete due to the contact sports ban under Michigan’s COVID restrictions.

The suit against Elizabeth Hertel, the new director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), claims the state is in violation of the United States Constitution, Michigan Constitution and/or Michigan state law by enforcing the MDHHS emergency order to stop contact sports such as high school hockey and basketball.

From the lawsuit summary:

“MDHHS’s January 22 Order arbitrarily and irrationally singles out and deprives Plaintiffs of their rights and freedoms to associate with other students and engage in athletic competitions, while allowing other high school athletes to compete in ‘non-contact’ sports; older athletes to compete in ‘contact sports’; and businesses to operate that create larger public-health risks than the prohibited high school sports.

Specifically, MDHSS offers no data – nor can it – to support the lines it’s drawn prohibiting high school athletics but permitting collegiate and professional athletics.”

Right now, only certain sports, including football, are allowed to compete at Michigan high schools. This has become a controversial topic across the state as the governor urges all schools to resume in-person learning by March 1.

“The continuing suspension of winter ‘contact’ sports contradicts the message that it is safe to return to in-person learning,” Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti wrote in a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lat week. “One only needs to ask any winter ‘contact’ sport athlete and they will tell you we are sending mixed and contradictory messages to them.”

During a COVID-19 briefing last week, Whitmer was asked about contact sports resuming.

“I was wondering if there’s any way you could set a date certain for contact sports to resume,” a reporter said.

Here’s Whitmer’s entire answer on the subject last week:

“With regard to contact sports, we’re watching the numbers very closely. I think it’s important to point out that, you know, as Dr. (Joneigh) Khaldun talked about, the variant, and the seriousness and the high contagious aspects of this variant.

“It’s important that we keep watching the numbers. I mean, I understand the concern that parents and athletes have, and their desire to reengage, but also point to some events that just happened in the last couple of days, with seeing this variant growing in and around Washtenaw County and around the University of Michigan campus.

“I want to commend the University of Michigan for taking the actions that they did. We think that those are the right steps to keep people safe, and our job is to try to curtail the spread of this new variant in Michigan, and we’ve got to not let our guard down.

“We reengaged restaurants to a certain extent. That will increase the amount of people that are out and about in, and I think it’s important that we stay very focused on where the numbers are before we take additional steps.”

Among the list of constitutional violations claims made by this “Let Them Play” lawsuit is a claim that MDHHS is violating the right to free education:

“Plaintiffs have been arbitrarily and irrationally deprived of an adequate education, an essential component of which is the ability to socialize and engage in athletic competition.”

Here’s a letter they sent to Hertel last week:

The Michigan High School Athletic Association spoke out Friday on the hiatus of winter sports in the state. They are asking for the state to resume practice and competition in the four main contact sports sooner than the Feb. 21 deadline.

The four sports MHSAA wants resumed are basketball, wrestling, hockey and competitive cheer.

The MHSAA said it has been speaking with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Elizabeth Hertel and that they’ve had more access to her than they had with the previous director, Robert Gordon.

Let Them Play, Inc. had been threatening the lawsuit unless winter high school sports were resumed by Monday, Feb. 1, the same say the MHSAA says winter contact sports started in 38 other states.

MHSAA issued this “Fact Sheet” about contact sports:

Read more: Gov. Whitmer encourages Michigan public schools to reopen for in-person learning by March 1

About the Author:

Dave Bartkowiak Jr. is the digital managing editor for ClickOnDetroit.