As COVID-19 cancels most youth sports seasons, some parents pursue legal action

As a few turn to lawsuits, expert says organized sports 'problematic at best.'

September 25, 2020, 4:03 AM

Every morning, before making breakfast, Chris Tyndorf looks at a sign on the kitchen wall that has become his family's motto: "God, Family, Football."

For more than 10 years, Tyndorf’s 14-year-old son has been playing football and during that time family vacations and work schedules have revolved around daily practice, weight and agility training, and games on the weekend. But as businesses and facilities began to close down as coronavirus ravaged his home state of New York in late March, football practice, a sacred family routine for Tyndorf’s son, came to a screeching halt. As the state of New York began to reopen in late July, football remained sidelined, deemed too risky by health officials.

But now, with the fall season approaching, Tyndorf, along with other parents, is objecting. He said he's preparing a lawsuit against New York State and the governing athletic association to allow fall football.

"I got tired so I decided to do something about it," Tyndorf told ABC News.

Should Tyndorf go ahead with the suit, he wouldn't be the first. At least a handful of similar suits over youth sports reportedly have been filed already in different areas of the country. The legal efforts follow the #letthemplay hashtag parents coined and which has spread as a popular rallying cry for parents and students eager to play sports during the fall.

Legal experts told ABC News the debate is likely only to get louder, and come with more lawsuits, as the fall athletic season begins with some football fields, baseball diamonds and hockey rinks empty.

PHOTO: Barron Collier's Colleen Ziegelmaier dives for the ball during a volleyball game against Ocala Vanguard at Barron Collier High School in Naples, Fla., Nov. 9, 2019.
Barron Collier's Colleen Ziegelmaier dives for the ball during a volleyball game against Ocala Vanguard at Barron Collier High School in Naples, Fla., Nov. 9, 2019. Secondary Ndn 1109 Ad Barron Collier Volleyball 004
Alex Driehaus/Naples Daily News/USA Today Network

Amid the pandemic, sports -- especially organized team sports with players in close contact -- could present a serious risk of coronavirus transmission, according to medical experts. But for many American parents like Tyndorf, youth sports have become a central focus of weekend free time, a building block of social interaction, and, in some cases, a path to college or the embodiment of even bigger dreams.

"We know we are not alone," said Tyndorf. "Families all over the country are fighting to get our kids back out there."

The state of New York did not respond to a request for comment for this report, and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association declined to comment. State guidance said football practices could start next week, but still no games are allowed.

Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told ABC News that he thought organized group sports are "problematic at best" -- at least until a viable vaccine is available.

"While students gain significant health benefits from playing group sports, they also constitute a chain of transmission that places all athletes, coaches, family and friends at risk for COVID-19," Glatter said. "The bottom line is this: we need to wait until an effective vaccine is widely available before we can safely allow organized sports at all levels of competition to go forward. One death is too many."

With the coronavirus pandemic still widespread and a death toll topping 200,000, parents are being forced to weigh the value of the sports for their children and themselves against the new health risks they could pose. For some, the choice has not been an easy one.

"I did not want to go through this process," said Paul Berry III, a father of a high school senior athlete who filed a lawsuit last Thursday in Missouri to overturn St. Louis County's restrictions on youth sports. The lawsuit filed by Berry claims that because of the restrictions in place, athletes, especially those of color, will be at a disadvantage to obtain scholarship and grant money.

"These restrictions are putting athletes of color in a horrible position for them to get scholarships," Berry told ABC News. "Their performance during their junior and senior year is vital. I'm definitely in support of health and safety but there's been a failure of our leadership and our kid's futures are being affected by these decisions."

"We can keep coronavirus under control," added Berry. "With the right regulations, student-athletes can go back to being part of a team and being happy."

Nadav Shoked, a professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law, said he expects to see more lawsuits and added that he's been "somewhat surprised" over the success of similar suits brought by churches and gyms against local coronavirus restrictions.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers detailed "guiding principles" for youth sports organizations who decide to go ahead with practices and games -- like considering the "physical closeness of players" and outbreaks in the local area when assessing risk. But if permitted by state or local coronavirus restrictions, which can vary from state to state and sport to sport, the decision to go forward falls to the organizations or school districts themselves. The result has been a patchwork of policies affecting children and parents across the nation.

Dr. Jay Bhatt, an ABC News contributor and former chief medical officer of the American Hospital Association, said he was worried about the risks that some sports pose.

"Sports that allow for individual participation and distancing like golf, tennis, or running are going to be less risky than sports that involve a lot of close contact like basketball, football, and soccer," said Bhatt. "Postponing a sporting event can be a difficult thing but has to be done to keep people safe."

Glatter, the Lennox Hill physician, added that many schools don't have the resources that professional leagues do to take precautions like daily testing and facilities that allow for outsized social distancing.

"The majority of middle and high school sports programs aren't financially or operationally able to perform frequent rapid COVID testing to assure the safety of students participating in such programs," Glatter told ABC News. "This places teachers and all family members at elevated risk for not only acquiring COVID-19 but transmitting it to others in the community."

Jeremi Duru, a law professor at American University Washington College of Law, said he was not surprised by the lawsuits that have been filed and he, too, expects more to come, considering how "politicized the threat posed by the coronavirus" has become.

"Even without a declared state of emergency, authority to order quarantine or, in this case, restrict public gatherings like youth sporting events generally exists and if a governor declares a formal state of emergency on health grounds, that authority exists too," Duru told ABC News. "But the authority requires that the restriction be rooted in something tangible – that there exists a need for the restriction. And that is where the rubber meets the road with these lawsuits. Those who are suing are essentially arguing the threat is not great enough to justify the state's use of its authority to restrict activity."

In Ohio, Tom Sunderman, the president of the Southwest Ohio Basketball, joined local sports complexes to file a lawsuit against the state department of health and the Warren County Health District in June. Two months later, they were granted a preliminary injunction, which allowed the league to resume, for now.

"We were able to show that we could open up basketball in a safe way," said Sunderman. "We are following social distancing guidelines and we have implemented temperature checks and the entire facility gets sanitized every night."

"Our kids are happy and everyone is safe," Sunderman added.

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