Members of Oakland's Skyline High School football team — the Titans — do conditioning drills on Feb. 3, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
In early February, the Oakland Unified School District allowed school sports teams to resume workouts for the first time in nearly a year.
For Joe Bates, the head football coach at Skyline High School, that means being able to coach his team for the first time since March.
“I’m excited to see the boys. I’m excited, man.” Bates said, while recently greeting players as they streamed into the parking lot at Castlemont High School, where the Skyline team will be holding workouts for the next few weeks.
But this is no normal practice: There are no balls, no pads and definitely no contact. State and county guidelines have until now only allowed for “outdoor conditioning,” where students can maintain 6 feet of distance from each other. Skyline defensive coach Kerry Griffin says the important thing is just getting the kids back on the field.
“So that way they’re not all cooped up in the house or running the streets,” he said.
Uptick in Violence
Lower-income Black and Latino communities have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, where rates of both infection and violence have simultaneously soared. Many community advocates attribute that rise in violent crime to the abrupt disappearance of most in-person youth programs, like sports teams and other resources, leaving many vulnerable kids more exposed to crime and gun violence.
Before the pandemic took hold, Oakland’s violent crime rate had been on the decline. But in 2020, the murder rate shot up by 36%. Of the 102 people killed in the city last year, 12 were students and recent graduates from Oakland schools, according to the district.
“It’s way more shootings than it used to be,” said Devynn Trahan, a defensive tackle in his senior year at Skyline. Trahan lives just down the street from Castlemont, where he says shootings have become a near daily occurrence.
“Honestly, I'm so used to it and I would hear it and I’d be like damn, that’s another life taken,” he said.
One of last year’s casualties was Aaron Pryor, an up-and-coming running back at Skyline, who was shot and killed in September, just after turning 16.
“If corona never would have hit, I think my son would have still been here, for sure. There’s no if and buts about it, he would have still been here,” said Taijuan Pryor, Aaron’s father.
‘My Number 1 Guy’
On a recent Friday, Taijuan was sitting with friends and family members outside of his small house in East Oakland, where he lives with his mom and two kids. He was wearing a black long-sleeve shirt with a blown-up picture of him with his son.
“That was my number 1 guy, I was his number 1 fan,” Taijuan said.
Aaron’s football career started at a young age, when Taijuan put him in a Pop Warner youth league.
“He had some awesome talent, bro. He was MVP for like two years in a row, feel me. Aaron was running back all four years,” Taijuan said.
Taijuan moved to Las Vegas when Aaron was 13, leaving him with his mom. But she worked long hours. And that’s when he started getting into trouble, Taijuan says. Aaron was arrested for robbery when he was 14 years old, and spent nine months in juvenile hall. And that’s when he had a big wake up call, his father says.
“He was like, 'Damn dad, I should be playing football right now.' And that really hurt him, that he couldn’t play,” Taijuan said.
After Aaron's release, Taijuan moved back to Oakland to keep a closer eye on his son, and took him to meet Bates.
“Coach Bates was like, ‘Damn bro, he’s big and stocky. Where did he come from? He’s hella fast,’ ” Taijuan said.
Aaron started to meet with teammates for unofficial workouts in the park last spring. But just as he was falling into rhythm with his team, the pandemic intensified and those workouts happened much less frequently. That's when Aaron fell back into his old habits on the streets, his father says.
“If you don't get away, or if you don’t really be focused, then Oakland is just one big old trap, man. For certain kids. And my son was one of ‘em,” Taijuan said.
Aaron was shot on Sept. 27, just outside of his mom’s apartment. Taijuan goes regularly to visit his grave.
“I go like every two days, just sit up there,” he said. “That was my first-born child. I can’t ever get that back.”
Bates has joined a growing chorus of advocates around the state calling for Gov. Gavin Newsom to further ease pandemic-related restrictions on youth sports. He’s among over 60,000 people in a Facebook group called “Let Them Play CA.”
State health agencies have allowed some sports programs to resume, based on the color-coded, four-tier system that California uses to assess COVID-19 transmission risk.
Almost all of California, including every Bay Area county, is in Tier 1, or purple, indicating widespread transmission risk. For nearly a year, that's allowed for only limited-contact sports like tennis, track and field, and swimming. In July, state health officials said outdoor conditioning could also resume, although OUSD and many other school districts declined to allow it.
On Friday, Feb. 19, however, the California Department of Public Health released updated guidance for organized youth and adult sports, allowing outdoor high-contact and moderate-contact sport competitions to resume in the 27 counties where COVID-19 case rates are at or below 14 per 100,000. That includes sports programs throughout Alameda County, along with most other Bay Area counties (with the exception of Contra Costa and Solano counties, where rates are just above that threshold).
The new guidelines include weekly testing requirements for athletes playing high-contact sports like football, rugby and water polo.
“There’s a lot of benefits for these kids, psychological. And maybe even keeping them off the streets in more dangerous circumstances,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. While the virus remains a very real threat, Swartzberg says it has to be weighed against other public health concerns like gun violence.
It’s a matter of harm reduction, according to Swartzberg. It’s unrealistic to expect kids to stay indoors all day, he notes, so the city or county could provide an outdoor space where kids can stay safe from the virus and out of harm's way.
“The harm reduction would be to say, ‘Yes there would be a risk to doing that, but the good that comes from it is better, and it’s going to help obviate them from doing other things,’ ” Swartzberg said.
Unlike opening schools for in-person learning — which can be costly — offering outdoor conditioning programs is relatively inexpensive.
“Costs for masks, and probably the cost of moving the equipment,” Swartzberg said.
John Sasaki, an OUSD spokesman, acknowledged that the absence of sports is detrimental to students, but the district has been more focused on reopening classrooms — which hasn’t happened yet.
“We’ve certainly learned an enormous amount about how to operate in the middle of a pandemic in the 10 months since we’ve closed up shop,” Sasaki said. “I would say certainly if we ever face a situation like this again, we might handle it a bit differently to start.”
Matter of Life and Death
Bates believes if the district had allowed outdoor conditioning to resume back in July — as it could have — Aaron might still be alive.
“If we were doing what we are doing now back then ... I’m close to 100% sure that he would still be here today with us,” he said.
Bates says he tried to keep tabs on Aaron, but in the end, the only way he was able to keep him off the streets was through football.
“And when it happened, we felt broken because we felt a responsibility to a certain extent ... and we failed,” he said.
Since the pandemic hit, three students on the team have dropped out, and 22 others are falling behind in their classes, says Bates.
But for the time being, the coaches at Skyline are just happy to have their boys back on the field.