Toledo area teams pack private gyms to get around health board order


By Dave Briggs - Toledo Blade



TOLEDO — There are decisions that backfire, and then there’s the Lucas County Board of Health’s recent order to halt sports and extracurricular activities inside school facilities.

A well-intentioned mandate has come to feature more unintended — yet unsurprising — consequences than an amateur fireworks show at a nuclear plant.

There goes the neighborhood, or, in this case, the county.

As schools begin to blow through the stop sign at varying speeds, the edict has given way to a free for all, leading to unequal opportunities, public-vs-private hostilities that threaten to break apart conferences, and higher-risk activities than those the health department sought to prevent.

Parochial schools have largely treated the order like a gentle suggestion, moving winter sports practices off site and continuing to play games outside the county, while public schools that were complying with the spirit of the ruling have grown tired of being left behind. Many schools, including Anthony Wayne, Clay, Northview, and Southview, returned to practice this week, although with no plans to resume competition before the order — which runs from Dec. 4 to Jan. 9 — is lifted.

Until then, the biggest clashes will be the battles for gym and pool space. With schools not allowed to use their own buildings, they have turned everywhere from rec centers and YMCAs to churches and a barn.

“Every private gym in northwest Ohio is booked solid 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. with teams,” Northview boys basketball coach Jeremy McDonald said. “I’ve been on the phone nonstop the last three days.”

Finally, he found an open slot at Athlete Headquarters, a gym in Sylvania. McDonald detailed the Tuesday schedule there as he knew it.

“We’re going to go in at 1,” he said. “St. John’s is in there from 10 to 1. St. Ursula’s before them. Our girls team comes in at 2:30. St. Francis comes in from 2:30 to 4:30. Then they have volleyball from 4:30 to 10. So you have four teams, then volleyball, with no breaks in between … whereas when we’re at Northview, we clean the balls every day twice a day, the floor gets disinfected twice a day, and there are only two teams that use the floor. It is insane.”

That’s one word for it.

Listen, I’ve already said my piece.

Agree with the order or not, working to circumvent it in the middle of a still-roaring pandemic sends the wrong message.

But I appreciate the frustration.

If I were in the young athletes’ sneakers, I would ask the exact same question: Why is it OK for adults to crowd into bars, restaurants, gyms, and casinos, but not for kids to play sports in a supervised environment?

As cases began to explode last month, this corner advocated for a painful but brief statewide pause on indoor dining and recreational activity, including high school sports.

Instead, Gov. Mike DeWine has continued to pass more bucks than the Monopoly Man, giving us situations like this, with county school leaders and boards forced to choose between defying the wishes of the health board or those of the parents who either bankroll or elect them.

It is all for one, none for all, pitting neighbor against neighbor, school against school. Tensions are especially high in leagues like the Three Rivers Athletic Conference, where you have teams in the same county traveling opposite roads. The league’s private schools in Lucas County — Central Catholic, Notre Dame, St. Francis, St. John’s, and St. Ursula — have continued playing games, while the public schools — Clay and Whitmer — have not. (Speaking of inequity, let us not forget the students in Toledo Public Schools who have been sidelined since last month.)

“There’s been talk the TRAC could disband, and the private schools are going to be out on their own,” one coach said.

An area administrator added: “The landscape in northwest Ohio is going to change.”

TRAC commissioner Mike Richards told us there is no dissension in the ranks. “I’ve never experienced any animosity one way or another,” he said.

In any case, it is one giant mess. The greatest source of discontent remains the federal lawsuit filed by three private schools — Emmanuel Christian, Monclova Christian, and St. John’s — and a conservative non-profit organization that claims the health board violated their rights in shuttering classrooms.

Several area superintendents are under the impression the health board is willing to soften the sports portion of the order, but can’t because of the ongoing litigation.

McDonald spoke for many when he wrote to St. John’s leaders Sunday asking the school to drop its name from the suit.

“I began typing this at 3:30 am. I am not STILL up, I am waking up for the day, as I have every day for the last three weeks, because I don’t know how to help my own kids (our team),” he wrote. “St. John’s, in particular the basketball program, has held my admiration for over 30 years. I have always had a high respect for Coach (Ed) Heintschel, my fellow east sider, and the excellence and traditions of his program. I have a mutual respect, too, with Coach (Mike) Schoen and I know he is carrying on with the standards that have been set forth.

“One of the things I have most admired about Coach Heintschel’s teams has been their willingness to sacrifice. Coach was never out to embarrass anyone (except maybe SF!) and he never padded his stars’ stats. What’s more SJ never took the easy way out. They always scheduled tough and played tough. Now, I am asking you to take the tough route: walk away for the good of all children in Lucas County.

“Please also consider the long-term impact of this (lawsuit, order) carrying on. Due to its success, SJJ has been the ‘New York Yankees’ of Northwest Ohio. Success breeds ‘haters’ and as you continue to practice and play out of county while the rest of us are sidelined, it’s only going to throw gas on the fire. Schools are going to ostracize SJJ athletics — they won’t schedule you, and kids will unfairly lose votes for all-league and other honors. SJJ will suffer. Please don’t take that as a threat, it’s just my opinion. And, I don’t want it to happen.

“If St. John’s drops its name from this lawsuit, the others will soon follow. More importantly, [the health department] will amend the school order and we can navigate through these tough times side by side. We all know other areas of the state are not taking the pandemic as seriously as Lucas County and continuing to play on the road is certainly not the safest choice for kids during this time. Walking away (from the lawsuit) even though you may be ‘right’ won’t be easy, but it will be the best thing for all schools in Northwest Ohio, including yours. Please consider.”

Health Commissioner Eric Zgodzinksi previously denied the suit is why the board is standing by its order, but said he has been advised not to discuss the case.

Meanwhile, Aaron Baer, a spokesman for Citizens for Community Values, the organization that joined the suit, accused the board of “blatantly lying” that there is anything keeping it from altering the order. “If they let students safely resume their activities, the lawsuit goes away,” he said in a statement.

We’ll see what happens, but either way, let’s hope the hatchet is buried along with the pandemic.

The health department order was supposed to bring us together in the fight against a common opponent.

Sadly, in another sign of the times, it’s only ripped us further apart.

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By Dave Briggs

Toledo Blade

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