Do safety protocols not pertain to travel teams?

Opinion: Columns

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By James Kay

Sports Editor

About a week ago, I was browsing through Facebook and saw a former neighbor of mine post a video of his son mashing a double into the right-centerfield gap. At first, I was proud. I have been following his development as a baseball player since he was half the size he is now (I can report he is no longer the same pull hitter he was two years ago). 

But then I watched the video again. 

Along the fence behind the batter's box was my neighbor's travel team standing shoulder to shoulder. No masks were worn. The home plate umpire was positioned behind the catcher prior to the pitch being thrown despite other leagues taking the precaution to move such umpire behind the pitcher to abide by social distancing protocols. 

I wish this was the first instance I have seen travel teams take Illinois' restoration plan as a mere suggestion rather than a strict guideline to stunt the spread of COVID-19. 

Yes, Illinois has had relative success in seeking to control COVID-19 cases and deaths, but this has not been the case for Illinois athletic programs. After seeing coronavirus' impact on high schools like Lake Zurich, which had 36 students-athletes test positive for COVID-19 after opening practice up, the IHSA quickly backed out of its Phase 4 Return to Play guidelines that were too lenient to begin with. 

Based on conversations I have had with Midwest high school coaches, I have been told travel teams from Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin are going in and out of each others' states to participate in tournaments. Before the IHSA deferred to the Illinois Department of Public Health to determine what high school programs can do during the pandemic, teams were allowed to hold practice in and outdoors. There are players who participated in these out of state tournaments who came back and practiced with their high school teams.  

This is not exclusive to baseball. 

If you hop on high school basketball Twitter, you will find videos of prospects working out indoors without a mask. The gyms in those videos are populated with coaches and other players who are not interested in following protocols that benefit those who are more vulnerable to coronavirus. 

At a certain level, I get why some of these kids are anxious to get back out on the floor. AAU and other travel sports organizations provide a platform for athletes to turn one high end scholarship into several. For lower level prospects, summer tournaments and showcases can be the difference between avoiding accumulating massive debt from student loans and using their talents to get free access to higher education. Families who put deposits down on their children's travel teams before the pandemic also don't want to feel like they burned money in a time where financial security is not a given. 

With that said, there needs to be a reality check here. 

There is still plenty we don't know about coronavirus, including its long-term effects on our society. Younger people and their invincibility complexes can carry COVID-19 and not suffer the ramifications of those in their practice environments that are at a greater risk. Hell, even if coaches, players and spectators are fine with contracting coronavirus that doesn't mean they can't indirectly pass it on to those who are following the CDC's recommendations outside of practice facilities. 

Even as someone whose job security is dependent on there being prep sports in the near future, I can't imagine a world where travel teams are continuing their pre-pandemic circuits around the Midwest without there being ramifications for high school sports. There are already talks about postponing the sports season until January (though there are many options the IHSA is contemplating) while travel sports haven't skipped a beat since April. 

Whatever happens in the coming weeks (or, more realistically, months), travel teams' blasé approach to this situation is disheartening at best and a life-threatening safety hazard at worst. 

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