When the world was normal, Wednesday’s sun and 65 degrees would have drawn thousands of young athletes to the city’s parks and school fields. Van Cortlandt Park would be alive with the panoply of sports.
Track teams would be working out at the 400-meter track in the stadium. Soccer squads would claim a southern section of the parade ground, near the swamped tennis courts, maybe with a rugby or flag-football team running drill nearby, while softball and baseball players worked the diamonds at the northern end. On the other side of the golf course, on Paddy’s Field, Gaelic football teams would solo and hand pass, while in nearby high-school gyms, gymnasts would vault and badminton players would try to perfect their underhand drop shot as fencers parried and thrusted.
“We’d have people all over our complex,” said Nick DeFendis, the founder and head of the Richmond County Baseball Association. His 53-acre complex hosts 15 teams for kids from seven to 17.
“Right now, I’d probably be at practice with all of my teammates. We’d practice from Monday through Friday or be at a meet on weekends,” said Anthony Benitez, a track athlete and junior at Riverdale Kingsbridge Academy, a high school in the West Bronx.
Of course, because of COVID-19, Benitez and thousand of other athletes who play one of the 17 spring sports supported by the Public School Athletic League, are not practicing, or playing—nor will they this season. Same goes for their counterparts in private and parochial schools. And youth sports outside of the school system, from T-ball for kindergarteners to travel-team soccer, are dormant as well, with some leagues already calling it quits for the season and others, like DeFendis’s operation, hoping to salvage some playing time. (Update: After initial publication, the Parks Department told City Limits that no athletic permits would be granted through August 31, meaning that any leagues that rely on public space will have no summer season.)
DeFendis, Benitez and South Shore High School senior Kateri Poole joined the Max & Murphy Show on Wednesday on WBAI to discuss the impact of COVID-19 cancellations on youth sports and the kids who play—and love—them.
Benitez remembers the moment in March when he learned, after days of rumors to that effect, that his season would not occur. ”I was so devastated, he said. I remember walking into the living room and just sobbing to my mother.”
The decision was a no-brainer for the city, coming days before the far more significant decision to cancel in-person school. Compared with the thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of job losses in New York wrought by the pandemic, the loss of a coaches-pitch baseball game here or high-school track meet there is, for sure, a minor tragedy. But it is not an insignificant one.
“It really is an issue for me and my junior teammates because we were expecting to walk into this amazing season and everything was perfectly set up since we’ve been training all year long and we were so excited to begin the process of scouting and for all that just to be taken away from us is devastating,” Benitez, who is hoping his skill with the shot-put and discus will help open college doors.
Poole is in a different position: A senior point guard, she has already signed to play next year at Ohio State. Like Benitez, she’s been trying to stay in shape on her own. Whether and when she’ll join her new teammates is unclear.
“As of right now, it doesn’t look too good. I won’t even be able to go there for the summer session. I believe we’re doing online classes but at the same time, I’m trying to keep positive thoughts about it,” she said. “Whenever they say I can get on campus, I’m going to take that opportunity and go.”
DeFendis is hopeful that baseball might start by July 1, and says well-organized programs can conduct games with social-distancing rules in place (although he adds that his parents are not supportive of having players on the field wear masks). He thinks that a lot is riding on how New Yorkers behave this weekend, as spring weather (at least on Sunday) will drive the city to its open spaces.
“If New Yorkers socially distance this weekend, it may be a good guideline for New York to start opening-up,” he said.
Hear our conversations below, or the full show, which includes interviews with two Congressional candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in Brooklyn’s Ninth District next month.
A coach and two players on the suspension of youth sports
Max & Murphy: Full Show of May 20, 2020
With reporting by Anika Chowdhury