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Nassau County athletes, parents rally for fall sports

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On Friday, chants of “Let them play!” rang out from the Nassau BOCES Administrative Center in Garden City, where Nassau school superintendents voted on Wednesday to postpone high school sports until Jan. 4.

More than 100 high school athletes, parents and state and local representatives attended the rally calling on Section VIII, the governing body for Nassau County’s high school athletics, to reverse the decision.

“This is more than just about sports,” said Jill Levine, a mother of John F. Kennedy High School athletes and an organizer of the rally. “This is all about having the right to play and following the rules, which we have been doing for months and months.”

Protesters argued that recreational sports leagues that were active throughout the summer showed games can be played without a spread of Covid-19 cases. The seven-person committee of Nassau superintendents, who voted unanimously for the delay, did not believe safety could be guaranteed, however.

“I believe other sections will follow and pull the plug, but I can’t speak for anyone else,” said Section VIII Executive Director of Athletics Pat Pizzarelli. “We felt strong enough to make this decision now. We took the cautious route, but we believe it’s in everyone’s best interests. There are too many unknowns.

“It’s just not time to allow kids to play sports,” he continued. “And my first and foremost concern is the safety of our student-athletes.”

On Thursday, the Section VIII Superintendents Board issued a statement that the decision would be reconsidered, but the panel made no promises about whether a season would be played in the fall. “Section VIII is committed to reassess its position prior to the governor’s starting date of Sept. 21,” they wrote. “As always, we will act in what we believe to be in the best interest of the health and safety of all those in our charge.”

The postponement was made two days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued guidance permitting lower-risk high school fall sports — soccer, tennis, swimming, field hockey and cross-country — to begin practicing and playing on Sept. 21, while noting football and volleyball could begin practicing but not playing. It made Nassau the first of the state’s 11 sections to move its fall season.

“I have a son who was an All-State volleyball player at Bellmore-JFK, and he’s in college now. That sport made him into the person he is today,” Levine said. “My two daughters, who are also athletes, were devastated when they got the news.”

 “2020 is not over yet, even though we’ve been through a horrendous time,” said Briana Sayoc, a soccer player and rising senior at Wellington C. Mepham High School in Bellmore. “I think we shouldn’t start from scratch in 2021; we should start now. If we can reverse this and we can play together, it’ll bring such happiness to all of us.”

“I think I speak for everyone here that sports are our lives, and it’s really not fair that Suffolk County, just a couple of towns over, is going to be doing what they love every day, escaping reality on the corner of their field, and we’re going to be stuck waiting until January,” said Nicole Devlin, a four-sport athlete and senior at Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick.

The plan for Section VIII, Pizzarelli said, is to play all three sports seasons between January and June, when, officials hope, the threat of Covid-19 has decreased. He said Section VIII will create its own contingency model and aim to limit overlaps of the condensed, nine-week seasons.

Athletes at the rally argued that the shortened timespan is not feasible, however.

“I just know that I cannot cram four sports from January to June,” Devlin said. “I think things should start Sept. 21.”

“For the three-sport athletes, we’re not going to able to pick and choose what sports we want to play,” said Ryan Wells, an athlete at Island Trees High School in Levittown.

“Sports teach so much to our kids, and these kids are so dedicated to high school sports,” said Nassau County Legislator Steve Rhoads. “They teach them teamwork and pride. They also provide a wonderful opportunity to these students to have access to scholarships and opportunities that they will be denied if Section VIII’s decision is allowed to stand.”

“These kids need this to get into college. There are kids here who won’t be able to go to college if they are not allowed to play this fall,” Levine said. “While we appreciate the answer went from ‘No’ to ‘We’ll reevaluate,’ it is absolutely not OK to be re-evaluating on Sept. 21. This needs to happen now.”