DETROIT – The superintendent of Detroit schools is urging Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to resume winter contact sports for high schoolers, asking her to “keep it consistent” with reopening schools, citing frustration with a lack of communication and pointing to potential lawsuits from coaches and parents.
Dr. Nikolai Vitti started the letter by clarifying that he supports Whitmer, but he has grown frustrated by a lack of clarity about when winter contact sports can resume.
“To be direct, winter ‘contact’ sports need to start,” Vitti wrote.
He said there are continuing and legitimate fears about COVID-19 in the Detroit community, but 31 female and male high school coaches want to play basketball.
“Most of us supported the suspension of winter sports in November and December, but that delay now is unnecessary and causing undue harm to our student-athletes,” Vitti wrote. “Our families have analyzed the risk of playing and they want to play.”
Vitti said that sentiment is shared by thousands of players, coaches and families across the state who want to see high school basketball, hockey and wrestling resume.
While he wrote that he supports Whitmer’s call for school districts to reopen for in-person learning by March 1, Vitti said the suspension of contact sports is contradictory.
“The continuing suspension of winter ‘contact’ sports contradicts the message that it is safe to return to in-person learning,” Vitti wrote. “One only needs to ask any winter ‘contact’ sport athlete and they will tell you we are sending mixed and contradictory messages to them.”
Vitti said on one hand, the state is telling students it’s safe enough to attend hours of classes while sitting in rooms, walking in hallways and playing other sports, such as football and volleyball. People across the state can go to malls, movie theaters and soon restaurants, but they can’t play certain contact sports, he said.
“If we want our reluctant families to send their children back to school, as we both want to see happen, then allowing sports to move forward must be part of that process,” Vitti wrote.
He said if schools are open, all sports should move forward without interruption, “regardless of season or ‘contact.’”
“Let the Michigan High School Athletic Association handle sports from this point forward,” Vitti wrote.
If COVID-19 positivity increases to an unsafe level and in-person learning is suspended, then sports should be shut down for that season until in-person learning can resume, Vitti argues.
“Keep it consistent,” Vitti wrote.
According to Vitti’s letter, Michigan is among only 20% of states in the U.S. not playing winter contact sports. He said all of Michigan’s border states are playing despite higher COVID-19 positivity rates.
“Are we suggesting that 80% of governors and state health departments and medical officers are placing their student-athletes in danger?” he asked. “The logic behind such an argument is questionable.”
He also said hundreds of Michiganders are leaving the state to play winter contact sports elsewhere, a trend that began late in the fall.
“With the recent decision not to start the season, even more families will now leave the state to play out of frustration and the need to provide their children with healthy, competitive outlets,” Vitti wrote.
Vitti cited numbers that suggest student-athletes aren’t the cause for significant COVID-19 spread in Michigan. He even suggested coaches, parents and student-athletes might participate in lawsuits.
“Please do not let this frustration reach the level of a lawsuit against you and the state,” Vitti cautioned. “Coaches, student-athletes and their parents are in conversation with attorneys.”
Mental health, physical well-being and scholarship opportunities are being affected, he said. Vitti said college coaches are ready to testify that winter contact sport athletes in Michigan are at a clear disadvantage, and high school coaches are worried about losing players to private schools that play on a national circuit or in other states.
“We can do better than this,” Vitti said. “Our student-athletes deserve better than this.”
In closing, he urged better communication with the student-athletes about why their season has been suspended and what needs to happen to get back on the court, field and ice. Vitti said the state’s silence on the matter has been hurtful to players and families.
“It feels politically motivated against the MHSAA and prejudicial against athletics,” Vitti wrote. “I know that is not your intent.”
He offered to directly help in the process of finding a solution to the issue.
You can view Vitti’s full letter to Whitmer below.