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'We're seeing kids die' | San Diego County DA backs effort to get kids back in sports

"Let Them Play CA" is an organization of students, parents, teachers and coaches fighting to get student-athletes back on the field safely.

SAN DIEGO — Two San Diego-area high school athletes are suing California and San Diego County over coronavirus restrictions on high school sports, as part of a larger call Friday on state leadership to allow youth sports to resume. The lawsuit alleges that the state has not shown adequate medical evidence to support the ban on youth sports. 

The most recent lawsuit against the state is a part of an ongoing effort from the parent-student organization Let Them Play. In a conference call to reporters this morning, coaches and athletes voiced their concern about the toll that the lack of sports is taking on students.

“Now we’re seeing them join other brotherhoods that aren’t so pro-social, which we call gangs," said Joe Bates, a High School football coach from Skyline High School in Oakland.

“I’ve definitely felt like I’ve been a little bit more isolated," said Hana Erikson, a senior water polo player from Palo Alto High School. “My teammates in high school, like that’s my second family right there.”

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan also threw her support behind the student-athletes by claiming a correlation between the lack of high school sports and violent crimes in San Diego County.

“With the shutdown of sports, shutdown of school, shutdown of everything that kids can rely on, we are seeing gun violence," said Stephan. "We’re seeing kids die. We’re seeing kids commit crimes, join gangs and become involved in violent activity.”

Though there’s no hard evidence to support a link between no sports and a rise in violent crime, there is a myriad of other reasons why these coaches and athletes are saying “let them play.”

“We need your help to get these young men and women back outside,” said football coach George Jackson Jr. “Get them to be high school students, high school athletes and enjoy themselves again.”

The complaint filed Thursday on behalf of Nicholas Gardinera, a senior at Scripps Ranch High School, and Cameron Woolsey, a senior at Mission Hills High School, alleges that 47 other states have allowed high school sports to resume, and "plaintiffs know of no evidence that allowing high school sports has led to an increase in COVID-19 transmission or hospitalization in any of those 47 states."

Defendants include Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state Department of Public Health, San Diego County, and its public health officer, Dr. Wilma Wooten.

Like other lawsuits before it challenging California's pandemic restrictions, the complaint disputes public health officials "arbitrarily" allowing some sectors to operate, while prohibiting others. In this case, the lawsuit states that professional and collegiate sports teams are allowed to play if they follow certain protocols such as social distancing, mask-wearing and contact tracing, while no such permissions exist for high school teams.

Kate Folmar, a spokeswoman for California Health and Human Services Agency, said in a statement that as of Jan. 25, youth sports with "lower risk of exposure" can resume competition, per state guidance. Outdoor practice, training, skill-building and physical conditioning are permitted for all sports statewide, she said.

Gardinera and Woolsey are both football players, which means their sports cannot resume play until San Diego County drops from the purple tier to the orange tier, when "outdoor high-contact sports" are permitted, per California Public Health guidance.

"Throughout the pandemic, California has worked to keep virus transmission in check by providing public health guidance based on level of spread across our community and transmission risk associated with specific activities and settings," Folmar said. "We are always evaluating conditions on the ground and assessing whether to refine our guidance, and we'll continue to do so. We know that youth sports are important to our children's physical and mental health, and our public health approach has worked to balance those benefits against COVID-19 risks."

The state's guidance, however, does not apply to collegiate or professional sports.

The lawsuit references the San Diego Padres, which took part in the 2020 Major League Baseball season and playoffs, sans fans in attendance, as well as the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros, who all played postseason baseball at an empty Petco Park.

Among college teams, the suit mentions the San Diego State Aztecs and University of San Diego Toreros' men's and women's basketball seasons currently underway.

"If a sport is safe for college students to play when following certain protocols, it is no less safe where high school student athletes to follow these same protocols," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also alleges that the absence of athletic activities during the pandemic has contributed to a rise in dropout rates, failing grades, depression, gang activity and suicidal thoughts.

"We cannot keep talking as a civilization about kids being our future, and then not giving them every chance that they deserve to have that future in a responsible manner," Stephan said.

Ron Gladnick, head football coach at Torrey Pines High School, also spoke during the news conference and said he and other coaches recently conversed with Newsom and the governor's executive secretary Jim DeBoo on the topic of resuming youth sports.

Gladnick said initial talks were encouraging, but "since then, nothing has really happened."

"Three million kids in California deserve a greater sense of urgency than they're being given by our government right now," he said.

RELATED: ‘Let Them Play’ rallies held across California for youth and high school sports

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