Opinion | Detroit schools chief: Gov. Whitmer, let students play ball

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Governor Whitmer,

As you know, I have reached out to you through formal letters such as this to call your attention to matters that require your leadership and involvement. Your response and actions following each of those letters reaffirmed my faith in your support for not only the students of Detroit but also all of Michigan’s students. I want to be clear and upfront that although I have grown frustrated with the lack of communication and clarity regarding when the start of winter “contact” spots will be, why it has not started and what needs to occur for it to start, I continue to support you.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, is urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to lift restrictions on winter sports. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

I write this letter as a support and critical colleague not as an adversary. I have found that after nearly 15 years of leadership those who professionally challenged me the most often contributed the greatest to strengthening my decision-making in difficult situations.

To be direct, winter “contact” sports need to start. Here in Detroit, despite continuing and legitimate fears about COVID within the community, our 31 female and male high school coaches want to play basketball. Most of us supported the suspension of winter sports in November and December but that delay now is unnecessary and causing undue harm to our student-athletes. Our families have analyzed the risk of playing and they want to play. As you know, this is the same sentiment across the state among thousands of players, coaches and families for not only basketball, but hockey and wrestling as well.


Your call for school districts and schools to resume in-person learning by March 1 was the right one. However, the continuing suspension of winter “contact” sports contradicts the message that it is safe to return to in-person learning. One only needs to ask any winter “contact” sport athlete and they will tell you that we are sending mixed and contradictory messages to them. On the one hand, we are telling them that it is safe to attend hours of schools while sitting in classrooms, walking hallways, playing football or indoor volleyball, participating in practices but not “competing” with others, going to the mall, sitting in a movie theater and now eating in a restaurant but they cannot play basketball, hockey, or wrestle. Meanwhile, more vulnerable elderly individuals can go to casinos or bingo halls.

If we want our reluctant families to send their children back to school, as we both want to see happen, then allowing sports to move forward must be part of that process. If schools are to be opened for in-person learning and can be open, then all sports, regardless of season or “contact” need to move forward without interruption. Let the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) handle sports from this point forward. If the COVID positive infection rate increases to an unsafe level and you suspend in-person learning, then so should sports for that season until in-person learning can resume. Keep it consistent.

It is troubling to see that our state is one of only 20 percent of states not playing winter “contact” sports and that all Michigan border states are playing with higher positive infection rates. That fact makes it difficult to accept that this is truly a medical issue. Are we suggesting that 80 percent of governors and state health departments and medical officers are placing their student-athletes in danger? The logic behind such an argument is questionable. Moreover, why are we creating a situation where our student-athletes need to leave the state to play? As I am sure you know, hundreds of Michiganders have been leaving the state to play winter “contact” sports since the late fall. With the recent decision not to start the season, even more families will now leave the state to play out of frustration and the need to provide their children with healthy, competitive outlets.

The fact that 99.6 percent of football players tested negative toward the latter part of the playoffs, while the positive infection rate in the city and throughout the state was rising clearly demonstrates that high school student-athletes are not the cause for the spread of COVID or in a precarious health situation. Hence, why are we restricting their consenting desire (along with parents) to restore some normalcy to their lives?

As I believe you know, the opposition, despair, and anger to the continuing suspension of winter “contact” sports is rapidly growing in the city and across the state. Please do not let this frustration reach the level of a lawsuit against you and the state. Coaches, student-athletes, and their parents are in conversation with attorneys. Standing on this matter is clear regarding mental health, physical well-being, and the loss of scholarship opportunities. College coaches are ready to testify that Michigan high school winter “contact” sport student-athletes are at a clear disadvantage as compared to their counterparts in other states. High school coaches fear the loss of players to private schools that play on a national circuit or to other states. We can do better than this. Our student-athletes deserve better than this.

I urge you to please communicate to the student-athletes with clarity about why the season has been suspended and what needs to happen for it to start. If nothing else, they deserve this. The silence regarding this matter has been hurtful to the state’s student-athletes and to their coaches and families. It feels politically motivated against the MHSAA and prejudicial against athletics. I know that is not your intent.

I am more than willing to directly help in the process of facilitating a solution to this matter. Do students need to test? Do we need to raise funding for this? What does the positive infection rate need to be? Please provide clear metrics to move the season forward.

I trust that you will read this letter with an open and reflective mind and heart to problem-solve and actively communicate with our students and their families.

Sincerely,

Nikolai P. Vitti, Ed.D
Superintendent
Detroit Public Schools Community District

cc: Michigan senators
Michigan House of Representatives
Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, Chief Medical Executive
Michigan High School Athletics Association Executive Director and Executive Board
Governor’s K-12 Policy Team

5 thoughts on “Opinion | Detroit schools chief: Gov. Whitmer, let students play ball

  1. I agree, the emotional toll this has taken on our kids has been just as devastating as the disease itself. Besides sports I don’t understand the difference as to why restaurants have been closed (and reopening with limitations) while our kids eat lunch together everyday at school. None of this makes any sense.

  2. Do you seriously feel it is in young athletes’ beat interest to risk being infected by a virus that can impact their long-term health? There are many healthy athletic young people who have been brought down by this virus. With the new varients spreading it is irresponsible to risk these young peoples lives. They can wait until spring when more people are vaccinated, and doors and windows can be opened. Practice might be able to be held outside. I disagree with the states decision to open bars, restaurants, and casinos to indoor activity at this time as well. Again, this seems irresponsible now with the new varients spreading like wildfire. Our numbers are down because of precautions. Toss those out and they will climb again.

  3. “ The fact that 99.6 percent of football players tested negative toward the latter part of the playoffs…”
    Will you please show me where you received this data from, how many student- athletes/ coaches/staff were tested weekly in addition to this data you bring forth?
    I vividly recall the High school that was unable to play due to their whole team on Covid restrictions and were trying to bypass this rule. Let’s work on education as the top priority first. Then sports.

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