The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) just released a summary of scholastic sports in the COVID-19 era. The nation’s largest sanctioning body for athletic extracurriculars leads off by singling out the only “state” that “has yet to play high school sports” this school year: Washington, D.C.
While granting the federal district statehood is a bit off, the sports drought in the city is very real, and it’s unlikely to end before school’s out for summer. On the same day NFHS picked on the Nation’s Capital, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to give Mayor Muriel Bowser the authority to keep the COVID-19 public health emergency order in effect through May 20, 2021. Along with several prohibitions meant to protect the folks hit hardest during the pandemic—like bans on utility shut-offs and evictions—the mayor’s order keeps the pandemic’s most strident anti–high school sports edict in place.
I’ve chosen my wording there carefully, because D.C. doesn’t have a sports ban in place so much as it has a high school sports ban. The mayor’s original emergency order dealing with athletics, signed on December 7, 2020, included specific prohibitions on “high school extracurricular youth sports activities and competitions” in “basketball, boxing, football, hockey, lacrosse, martial arts, rugby, soccer, and wrestling” at any of the city’s “public schools, public charter schools, private schools, and parochial schools.” However, the measure exempted “youth younger than high school aged” and “universities and professional leagues.” Another portion of the emergency order said that gyms and rec centers in the city could still be used for “drills or workouts” by “adults” and “children younger than high school.” But any activity for “high school-aged athletes” was expressly forbidden. Before that order was handed down, athletes had been told high school sports teams would tentatively be allowed to practice beginning on Dec. 14, 2020.
No explanation for the bizarre and specific targeting of ninth through 12th graders was ever publicly disclosed by the Bowser administration. Several high school coaches and athletic officials in the city told me nobody from the mayor’s office consulted them before the order was handed down or even attempted to make those involved in scholastic sports aware of it after it was signed.
But the original order came at a time when COVID-19 was ravaging the entire National Capital region, with a disproportionately harmful impact on D.C.’s black population. And most parts of Bowser’s Dec. 7, 2020 order were supposed to expire on Jan. 1, 2021, while sports were slated to get going in the city’s schools on Feb. 1. So even though most of the rest of the country had by then either already held fall sports seasons, or announced that football seasons would be rescheduled for the spring, there was little blowback from D.C. students or their parents when the ban went into effect; they expected it would be just a short delay. “I didn’t get many calls,” says Clark Ray, executive director of the D.C. State Athletics Association (DCSAA), which oversees public, private and charter school sports in the city.
But rancor began surfacing around the new year, as high schools in all surrounding jurisdictions started formalizing plans to offer their high school students some extracurricular opportunities while D.C. did nothing. On January 28, 2021, or right before practices were supposed to begin in DCPS schools, Bowser extended the emergency order and all its high school sports prohibitions until March 18.
Still, there was no outreach to students or coaches from DCIAA, the sports arm of D.C. Public Schools, about the impact of the emergency order. DCIAA executive director Dwayne Foster declined to be interviewed for this story. LaToya Foster, Mayor Bowser’s communications director, did not respond to requests for comment. Even after the mayor issued the first extension of the emergency order, the top news story on the DCIAA website was headlined “Stay Hydrated For Summer.”
In the absence of direction from city hall, there have been athletic shenanigans all over town. Basketball teams from several D.C. private schools and at least one public school worked around the ban by entering teams with pseudonyms in private leagues run in the suburbs where there is no prohibition.
A hoops team with players from St. John’s College High School, a private school in the powerhouse WCAC Catholic League and subsidized by lots of alum Kevin Plank’s Under Armour dollars, is playing not as “St. John’s” but as the D.C. Cadets, in both the St. James Basketball League in Springfield, Va., and the DMVElite Varsity league in Capitol Heights, Md. A team with players from another WCAC school, Archbishop Carroll, which has been cranking out basketball talent since Georgetown legend John Thompson was a star center there in the late 1950s, played in both leagues as the D.C. Lions. A squad from Wilson Senior High, a D.C. public school, has competed in the St. James League as D.C. Evolution. Gonzaga College High School, still another Catholic basketball factory located near the U.S. Capitol, entered “Purple” and “White” teams in the St. James League to prepare for its one big official game of the 2020–2021 basketball season, a Feb. 4 loss in Hyattsville, Md. to eventual mythical national champion DeMatha Catholic. Girls teams from Sidwell Friends and Maret, among the city’s poshest private high schools, also played in St. James tournaments.
The shenanigans aren’t limited to basketball. Soccer teams from private schools are getting around the prohibition by renting field space outside the city for practices and only scheduling away games against schools in the suburbs. (Here’s a tweet from St. Albans, an elite private school in the city, letting on about its soccer team’s match at Bullis, a richie-rich institution in Potomac, Md.)
Clark Ray says he believes only good intentions inspired the mayor to implement the ban on high school sports. But in practice, the DCSAA director says, the athletic and cultural divide between the city’s haves and have-nots has only widened.
“The frustrating part is you can go across the 14th Street bridge and cross the river into Virginia or get on Rhode Island Avenue and head over to Maryland and there are activities taking place for those who have the ability to pay to play,” says Ray. “So some kids are getting to play, just not in the city. Then they come back home to the District. I’m not sure how much this is doing to stop the spread of COVID.”
Football players at the public schools have no such easy work-around, however. There aren’t any private football leagues in the suburbs available for them to play in. And DCPS athletes are having to hear a whole lot lately about how football players and other athletes in the public high schools in jurisdictions surrounding the city are now going ahead with their rescheduled fall seasons.
That’s led to some drastic steps. The Washington Post ran a story this week about a group of former D.C. high school football players who flew to Houston last weekend just to play in a 7-on-7 tournament. Wannabe football players from D.C. public high schools got the attention of the D.C. State Board of Education (DCSBOE), which earlier this week lodged an official plea with the city council to implement CDC’s protocols for youth sports and rescind “the prohibition on high school athletics.”
The letter from DCSBOE, a body that has only advisory powers in the D.C. government hierarchy ever since control of DCPS was transferred to the mayor over a decade ago, pointed out that every other school system in the area was giving students extracurricular opportunities. And because the ban was being flouted by the private schools that have the ability to rent fields and/or enter athletic leagues in the suburbs, the DCSBOE told the council, the mayor’s order had “created significant inequities for District resident students for whom such school-based sports are the sole venue for athletics.” (The athletics office at my alma mater, Falls Church High in D.C.-adjacent Fairfax County, Va., says the school has fielded 21 sports teams since January; Wilson Senior High, a DCPS school my son attends, has been legally prohibited from offering even one on campus. He joined teammates in lobbying city officials to reconsider the cancelation of football season.)
The missive arrived in councilmembers’ inboxes only days after Ray had sent them his own package of stats from across the country showing that the complete deprivation of athletic opportunities for students was aberrant. Ray included documents from the D.C. Department of Health and NFHS on how to most safely offer scholastic sports during the pandemic.
But any momentum toward reopening the city for scholastic sports got trumped by a tragedy: Last week, the mayor’s sister, Mercia Bowser, died of complications related to COVID-19. Days later, the council voted to give the mayor permission to extend the emergency order through at least May 20, 2021.
Graduations for DCPS high schools begin June 19, or less than one month later, so most seniors are done forever with high school sports. That would change, however, if D.C. politicians followed the wacky lead of Kentucky lawmakers. The state senate there, by unanimous vote, passed SB 128, a bill that allows high schoolers who feel cheated out of an athletic career by the pandemic to receive a fifth year of eligibility.
A similar measure, HB2806, which would add a “supplemental year” to any high school student wishing to make up for what was lost to COVID-19, was also introduced this week to state lawmakers in West Virginia. DCSAA’s Ray thinks a spate of these laws could pop up across the country.
But while high school redshirting would surely get an all right, all right, all right from Wooderson, Matthew McConaughey’s dirtball character from Dazed and Confused who never wanted to grow up, Ray says he has trouble believing the concept would play well with seniors in D.C.
“If your son is given the opportunity to stay in high school for another year, or be out from under your roof and get out of there, what’s he gonna do?” he says. “I can’t see it!”