There will be no football or water polo programs when Visalia Unified School District students go back to middle- and high-school campuses next week.
Making an Emotional Call
While the decision to curtail those two sports traditionally practiced in fall came in February, school board members reaffirmed the district’s decision at its March 9 meeting, despite an impassioned presentation of pleas from parents and student-athletes.
“It breaks my heart to not do football or water polo,” said VUSD Board President Juan Guerrero. “Some of us board members do have kids and grandkids who play sports. I wrestled with this.”
Several factors apparently played into the decision to skip the two popular sports this year, including a lack of playing space, the cost, and safety concerns due to a lack of player conditioning, Guerrero said.
“I talked to officials and coaches about why we couldn’t bring this back,” he said. “Part of it was conditioning.”
VUSD spokesperson Kim Batty was more direct.
“The main reason behind the decision, I’ll be honest, is safety,” she said.
She claimed a lack of conditioning on the part of players who spend months prior to the football season getting in shape is too great a risk.
“The football players haven’t been in the weight room. They haven’t been practicing with their equipment on,” Batty said. “Yet, they want to play, and that’s a safety issue.”
Also a cause for concern is the district’s ability to repeatedly and rapidly test football players, as the state requires for participation in close-contact sports. The state will pay for the cost of the testing, however, the system is not yet in place, according to Dr. Tamara Ravalin, VUSD’s superintendent.
“The portal for the state to order the rapid test isn’t even up yet,” she said, though she was later contradicted by one of the parents who spoke in favor of VUSD activating its football program off-season saying the portal was up running.
Pools and Fields Already in Use
The district’s students will participate in 14 organized sports when in-person instruction resumes on March 25 at the VUSD’s middle- and high-school campuses. That, according to Batty, means the district simply does not have the resources or the room to include water polo and football out-of-season.
“If you look through the booking of our pools, they’re full,” said Rick Hamilton, principal of Mt. Whitney High School, who is helping oversee the return of the district’s sports programs. “The pools are dominated by swim programs right now.”
In the spring, the district’s practice fields are given over to soccer, as well as track and field, for practices, matches and meets. The high-school pools are filled with competitive swimmers and divers. The district’s budget won’t cover the costs of hiring additional coaching personnel, and the buses used to transport teams are already committed elsewhere.
“We want to make sure we put all our resources behind this,” Batty said. “We made this decision to make the best decision for the majority.”
Equity Also a Factor
VUSD isn’t the only local school district forced to grapple with whether to have a football season this school year. School districts in Porterville and Exeter have opted against fielding teams, while Tulare and Hanford will have limited seasons.
“Other districts have other priorities,” Hamilton said. “The most we’ve heard about is a five-game season. For us it would be playing in town.”
He also said having a short season now could negatively impact fall sports next year, though he did not elaborate.
In fall of 2020, VUSD’s schools hosted their regular football programs before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a decision to shutter campuses for the duration. Winter and spring seasons did not happen, and forcing a short football season now would have adversely affected other sports programs, according to Ravalin.
“One of the things I heard… was that if we moved forward with football, we would ‘decimate’ spring sports,” she said. “That’s a strong word.”
Playing by the Rules
While the decision not to have football and water polo programs this school year came from the district office, school administrators, athletic directors and coaches were consulted, and it was their consensus not to run the out-of-season sports programs.
“I talked to officials and coaches about why we couldn’t bring this back,” said Board President Guerrero. “I used to play football. I was a lineman. Our weight rooms have been closed. If you’re not conditioned for that… there is a concern of injuries. We play by the rules here at the school district. Our students were not practicing at the parks and things like that.”
The VUSD has only 55 student-athletes who do not participate in at least one other sport. For them, the district is exploring other football options, such as a non-contact passing league.
“It might not be a full-pad, contact season, but we are looking at options,” Hamilton said. “The vast majority of water polo players, their coaches really push them to be swimmers in the spring.”
Student Mental Health in Jeopardy
Phil Walker–a resident of the district who helped organize a parent- and student-led effort to convince the district to allow football called Let Them Play–said he represented parents of 1,300 students who are concerned for their children’s mental well-being.
“They’re scared for their kids, because what you can’t see is them moping around the house,” Walker said.
Parent Brooke Dempsy said her son’s grades have dropped and he is facing a mental health crisis due to a lack of sports.
“Statistically, what’s happening to these kids that are getting left behind in the two sports that are not playing right now is beyond heartbreaking,” she said. “Not just my own child, who is currently on antidepressant medication and failing. (He) never failed before.”
Pressure at the Polls
State Assembly Member Devon Mathis (R-Visalia), who has joined Let Them Play, read a letter to the VUSD board he said he co-authored with State Senator Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), that said the district should try harder to overcome the obstacles stopping them from having a football season.
“All of these things, we believe, can be mitigated through city and community partnerships,” he said.
District representatives said they had discussed such options and found them unworkable.
Walker, who claimed the lack of sports will result in increased suicides and teen pregnancy, said his group would organize against VUSD trustees in future elections if they failed to reinstate the football and water polo programs.
“We won’t be going away,” he said. “We expect you to do the right thing.”