Whitmer 'lets them play,' lifts ban on contact high school sports

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday that high school sports leagues in Michigan will be able to begin holding practices and competitions on Monday, another sign of the state's improving COVID-19 metrics.

The announcement came after a weeks-long push by the parents and student-athletes that has included protests, committee testimony and a Wednesday lawsuit challenging the ban on contact sports, which had been scheduled to remain in place through Feb. 21. The campaign has been operating under the name Let Them Play.

"Our numbers are now in place where we can allow our kids to get back in the game with their coaches and teammates," the governor said during a press conference.

Michigan High School Athletic Association Executive Director Mark Uyl said ice hockey and basketball will begin Monday while competitive cheer and wrestling can begin practice Monday but must wait until Feb. 12 for competition. Tournament dates for those sports will stay the same, Uyl said. 

Damiya Hagemann, a senior point guard at Detroit Edison, can't wait to get started, especially since she is the frontrunner for Miss Basketball and will be playing with her sister, Devin, a freshman who has offers from Oakland, North Dakota and Detroit.

"I was just watching the press conference, so excited," said Damiya Hagemann, who will play next year at Michigan State. "I really wanted to play this season, to play with my little sister. We've been practicing, and I just felt like we're ready for it now."

Hartland 10th-year hockey coach Rick Gadwa also can't wait to get going, noting that Hartland will play host to Livonia Churchill at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Hartland Sports Center.

"I'm excited," said Gadwa, adding "players, coaches, administrators, we've just been looking for some hope. ... At this point, we don't care what it is, we're just ready to play."

Under a new epidemic order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, masks are to be worn during practices and competition. If masks cannot be worn, participants must be regularly tested for COVID-19 consistent with guidelines issued by the department, according to a press release.

Masks will be required for all practices and games for hockey and basketball, Uyl said, while wrestlers will be required to do rapid testing on the day of meets.

Competitive cheer will have to wear masks at all times during practice, but will not need to wear them on the mat during performance, Uyl said. 

The adjusted order, Uyl said, opens all youth and club contact sports as well as high school competitions.

The state's COVID-19 metrics continue to trend in a hopeful direction. Last week, Michigan reported 11,172 new infections, the lowest weekly total in 15 weeks and the percentage of tests bringing positive results dropped to 5.0%, the lowest weekly rate in 15 weeks.

A testing protocol for athletics will be issued on Sunday, said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Participants also need to maintain six feet of distance when not actively engaged in play and wear face masks at all times. Spectators are allowed with up to 250 people in stadiums that seat less than 10,000 and up to 500 people at venues that seat more than 10,000 people.  

Parents, coaches and players had voiced frustration over the continued closure of high school contact sports in recent weeks as many high schools resumed in-person learning in early January. They argued a pilot testing program used for football tournaments in late 2020 resulted in a low COVID-19 incidence among high school athletes. 

During the program, according to the Michigan High School Athletic Association, officials conducted 30,000 rapid COVID-19 tests on student-athletes over the last three months and found they had a 99.8% negativity rate.

On Saturday, supporters of allowing high school sports to resume gathered at the Capitol. On Wednesday, the Let Them Play organization announced a lawsuit against Hertel seeking an injunction while alleging the decision to delay several sports' seasons violated state and federal constitutions.

Let Them Play's attorney, Peter Ruddell, said the lack of high school sports has had a negative impact on young people and sports can resume safely with precautions in place.

"We will need to review the details of the order issued today to determine the impact it will have on student-athletes and their families across the state," Ruddell said. "After review, and if appropriate, we will take necessary action to dismiss the lawsuit."

Asked what impact the Let Them Play demonstration on Saturday had on her decision to allow sports, Whitmer said "none" during the Thursday press conference.

"I've been very clear that we are going to follow the science, and that's what we have been doing," the governor continued.

Whitmer was joined at the news conference by River Rouge head basketball coach Lamonta Stone and two of his players — Legend Geeter, who signed with Providence and should be a Mr. Basketball finalist, along with guard Keyshawn Devlin, who is one of the premier shooters in the state.

Prep schools lobbied Geeter to transfer, arguing he wouldn't be able to play, Stone said.

"Now he’s rewarded, has a chance to lead us to a state championship, has a chance to be Mr. Basketball, so that’s great," the coach said.

River Rouge was ranked No. 1 by The Detroit News last season and was set to play Detroit Cass Tech in a Division 1 district final when the season was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic. River Rouge will enter the season as The News No. 1-ranked team.

"Getting back into the classroom and being able to play the sport that I love will prepare me for my future," Geeter said at the news conference.

Last week, the Michigan Senate adopted a resolution urging the governor to consider an earlier reopening on contact sports, gaining support from Democrats when it passed through committee.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said Thursday's decision was "a victory for students, parents and school officials who have been pleading with the governor for weeks to let them play."

"The Senate Republicans would like to be optimistic about this change in policy, but that largely depends upon the guidance that is yet to be issued by the administration," Shirkey said. "We are expecting clear and uncomplicated guidance for youth sports to be able to start their seasons, quickly.

"No one can deny the negative impact of forced closures and arbitrary restrictions on our citizens and communities, and we will continue to urge the governor to eliminate such policies."

House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said the development was a "good day" for the state of Michigan. 

"Whitmer finally put politics aside, and she listened to science and data and to anguished parents and students — and reopened high school sports," Wentworth said in a statement.

Last week, Whitmer cited the state's growing number of COVID-19 variant cases in Michigan and the continued effort to reopen some schools to in-person learning by March 1 as reasons for the continued ban on in-person learning.

"Getting our kids back in class is top priority," Whitmer told WJR-AM's Paul W. Smith last week. "Getting sports reengaged is up there as well, but top priority is getting them in school, making sure our numbers don't take a big jump and then we'll take that next step."

On the potential for some school districts in Michigan to allow contact sports but not in-person learning Monday, the governor said she wouldn't second-guess administrators' decisions.

"From my perspective as a parent, I recognize that today's step is reengaging student athletics, but my premier goal is to try to make sure that we meet the educational needs of our students across the state," Whitmer said.

University of Detroit Jesuit boys basketball coach Pat Donnelly welcomed the development.

"It's time to play some basketball, and that has a great ring to it since we haven't been able to say that in 11 months," Donnelly said. "We are grateful and excited to return to competition next week."