Hudson Brindle does not describe himself as a naturally gifted athlete. His ability to gain a spot on three varsity sports teams at Pierson as a junior last year was, he says, a product of hard work. That effort was supposed to bear fruit in his senior year, when he was expected to play football as part of the shared sports program at East Hampton, have a significant role as a returning player on Pierson’s boys basketball team, and return to his spot as starting goalie on the South Fork boys lacrosse team, which includes players from Pierson, Southampton and East Hampton.
All three of those sports now come with an undesired new designation: high risk. And it’s questionable whether or not, in his final high school year, he’ll be able to play any of them.
Trying to avoid that fate was the driving factor for Brindle when, less than 24 hours after the Sag Harbor School Board of Education meeting on January 25, he started circulating a petition on Change.org. The petition — which had 645 signatures as of Monday — is a direct appeal to Sag Harbor School Superintendent Jeff Nichols who, with the support of the School Board, recommended against allowing high-risk sports like basketball and wrestling to conduct seasons this winter. The decision came down despite approval from the Suffolk County Department of Health and Suffolk County Legislator Steve Bellone. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had kept high-risk athletes waiting to see if they’d be allowed to conduct seasons, as they watched athletes in low and moderate risk sports like bowling, swimming and track and field gain clearance a month ago. Finally, Cuomo passed the decision-making power on to individual counties, paving the way for approval, but still leaving the ultimate choice up to individual schools.
Sag Harbor became the only school district in Suffolk County to keep its basketball players sidelined, making the choice even more painful to accept for the Pierson players. (Riverhead High School is not conducting fall or winter sports, but due to budget issues, not COVID concerns). East Hampton decided to let its basketball teams play, but decided against allowing interscholastic wrestling, even though both fall into the same high-risk category. Basketball players will not be required to wear masks while competing in games — but would wear them on the bench — and, of course, the fact that basketball takes place indoors and is a contact sport that blows social distancing out of the water are all factors that led to its designation as “high risk.”
Brindle would have been part of a Pierson hoops team that has had a successful run in recent years and was looking for a return to the playoffs. Now he’s left wondering what could have been, as his peers in neighboring towns were set to get back on the hardwood for practice this week.
“I worked up to varsity last year, and we had a very good season and went far in the playoffs,” Brindle said. “I broke my hand in practice a week before the county championships, and we lost to Center Moriches, and it was very heartbreaking. I feel like I could have helped the team, and now I’m feeling like I’ll miss out on two postseasons, and an entire senior season. It’s very distressing.”
Brindle said he would have been willing to go above and beyond even the regular parameters that have been set up by Section XI (the governing body of high school sports in Suffolk) for teams returning to play. He said he’d even happily do what high-risk winter sports athletes in Manhasset School District have been required to do — engage in fully remote learning until the season is over. His willingness to adopt any number of extra precautions and make other sacrifices speaks to his strong desire to keep playing the sport he loves.
“I would definitely go remote to play sports,” he said. “I can’t speak for the rest of my team on that, but being able to play sports is such a big part of our mental and social health and well-being.”
This is a point that school and government officials readily acknowledge when they make these decisions, whether they think it’s safe to play or not. For the student-athletes, it’s a risk worth taking—and one, they point out, that many of their peers have already been taking, playing on travel sports teams that have largely just adopted a few safety measures and kept on rolling.
Pierson sophomore Meredith Spolarich was set to be a returning varsity player for both the Lady Whalers basketball and field hockey teams this year. Her fall field hockey season was postponed, and is tentatively set to start in March, and she is dealing with the disappointment of seeing her varsity basketball season canceled. But she’s currently playing on a travel field hockey team, practicing three times each week. It’s been a welcome respite and distraction in what has been a tough year.
“It’s been really helpful,” she said. “We’ve been super safe, we all wear masks and have our temperatures taken. It’s possible to have sports and be safe doing it.”
Playing on a travel team is, of course, a luxury and privilege not every student can access — the leagues are businesses, and operate as such, requiring time and money on the part of parents. Even for those who can join travel teams, playing with a group of peers from high schools all over the county isn’t the same as the camaraderie and sense of pride that comes from competing on a varsity squad.
“Playing varsity contributes to your community connection as a whole,” Spolarich said. “You don’t really get that with travel.”
Brindle made another point he felt helped support the argument that the basketball teams should be allowed to play — students desperate for social interaction and recreational outlets will find a way to fulfill that need, one way or another, and allowing them to play sports is among the safer ways they can do that, he said.
“People will try to go out of school for interactions, and try to have a social life,” he said. “If we can have a controlled set up for students, it will be safer and a better way for them to socialize within the school.”
Brindle said he understands the severity of the virus and doesn’t take it lightly. He contracted COVID just over a month ago, he said, with symptoms similar to a cold. But he added that, if given the opportunity to play, he would exercise extra caution when it came to protecting himself from the virus, and said that as a team leader, he’d urge his teammates to do the same.
“Teens do sometimes make bad decisions, but keeping them in athletics can really decrease the chance that they’ll go out,” he said.
Brindle said he feels no ill will toward Mr. Nichols, saying he knows he’s just trying to protect students. For his part, Mr. Nichols said earlier in the week that he spoke the athletes, and said he told them they were within their rights to circulate the petition and make their voices heard.
While it does not seem likely that Mr. Nichols and the board will reverse course on the decision they’ve made, Pierson has not been officially removed from the schedules that were created for the abbreviated season. Staying on the schedule means that, in the unlikely event the school allows them to play, they can go ahead with a season. Until then, they will just forfeit any games that come up while they are still not allowed to play.
Until then, the Pierson basketball players will simply continue making the best of what has been a tough year. But they admitted that knowing their peers in neighboring school districts will be back on the court this week for practice will be tough.
“Sports are a huge part of my life,” Spolarich said. “It’s been really hard with COVID and trying to balance everything, especially when you’re separated from people. The outlet has been taken away, so it’s harder to release that stress and have fun playing a sport. I think the importance of sports is overlooked sometimes in kids’ lives.
“I do know a few people [from nearby schools] and they’re really excited, and everyone feels like it’s this light at the end of the tunnel after so many things being ripped away,” she continued. “So it’s kind of disappointing to see other people being so excited and being granted permission to go forward, but we’re so limited. Especially for the seniors; they’re extremely upset. It’s their last season, and for some of them they’ll never get to experience team sports again.”