BY GABRIELE HOLTERMANN
James Johnson, a community activist and City Council candidate for District 27, rallied with student-athletes, parents and coaches in St. Albans at the corner of Roy Wilkins Park on Saturday, Feb. 6, demanding that New York City reopen the doors to sports facilities for approximately 45,000 public student-athletes.
Across the five boroughs, students rallied to return to the athletic fields and courts advocating for equal opportunity and fairness, as certain private schools, Catholic schools and public schools in Long Island have been practicing in facilities for a long time, according to Johnson, a former student-athlete.
“Don’t punish these public school kids. Stop playing politics! We can do this safely with the same guidelines that Long Island is doing, the same guidelines the private schools and Catholic schools are doing. We can do it here,” Johnson said.
After a 10-month suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic while following COVID-19 protocols and suspension, students, parents and coaches want school sports to return to New York City, Johnson said. Parents are forced to take their children to New Jersey or Long Island for practice and some even go as far as taking their kids to states like Ohio for scouting opportunities, giving them a shot at an athletic scholarship.
As a COVID-19 survivor, Johnson said he understands the danger the pandemic poses but stressed that many athletes are becoming depressed seeing their peers in other parts of the state return to tracks, courts and fields.
In January, the state issued new guidelines clearing the way for all higher-risk high school and recreational sports leagues, which went into effect on Feb. 1. Local health authorities have to give their permission considering three factors: local COVID-19 rates, the local ability to monitor compliance with rules, and the presence of the U.K. strain of the coronavirus in the area.
So far, the NYC Health Department seems to be the wild card among other county health departments such as Long Island, where student-athletes have already returned to their gymnasiums.
High school senior and football player Troy Williams spoke for all student-athletes across the five boroughs who don’t get to finish their season.
“I love this sport. It hurts not being able to finish my senior season,” Williams said. “We just want to finish our season cause we might not get our scholarship opportunities. We are always told to finish what we start, no matter what. So how come the state of New York wants to quit on us?”
Campus Magnet Head Coach Eric Barnett reminded everyone of the opportunities sports can provide to students referring to Magnet alumni Blessuan Austin, cornerback for the Jets, and Kyle O’Quinn, former center for the Knicks.
“Who is the next Blessuan Austin, who is the next Kyle O’Quinn that’s going to miss out on an opportunity?” Barnett asked in light of the lack of scouting options.
Legendary Benjamin Cardozo High School basketball coach Ron Naclerio expressed that New York City’s student-athletes have been short-changed under the current restrictions and read a powerful, lengthy statement he had shared on social media.
“Very soon, it will be 12 months that high school sports in the Big Apple were forced to take a hiatus. Each athlete has a spark, and most coaches help fan that flame. Too many now have lost that spark, and they need a match to reignite their wiltering flame,” Naclerio said.
Springfield Gardens High School student Briana Augustin took the opportunity to point out the prevailing misogyny in sports, especially for Black female athletes. The tennis player and straight-A student spoke of the lack of funding and support for Black female student-athletes.
“When I first started playing tennis, it was hand-me-down rackets, hand-me-down balls. We lack supplies, especially in a community where female athletes are overlooked so many times,” said Augustin, who pointed out that leaving New York City to get scouted for a scholarship is not an option for her. “It doesn’t benefit my community. I give them my talent; I give them my name; I give them my face. And my people aren’t getting anything in return.”