By Raiza Giorgi

The statewide movement “Let Them Play” saw local action from athletes in Santa Barbara County, specifically Santa Ynez Valley athletes that are so frustrated with their athletic seasons not happening. 

“Our mantra is to teach the kids to only worry about what they can control, because giving negative energy just makes everyone’s life worse,” said Josh McClurg, head football coach at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School. 

The rally held on Jan. 15 at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse saw players from not only Santa Ynez High, but Lompoc High, Santa Barbara High, Bishop Diego High and others. The “Let Them Play” movement was conceived to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow high school student athletes to return to competition and the importance of youth sports. 

“When school was shut down last March our senior athletes were for the most part almost through all the seasons, and they have their junior games to show their growth year over year. That’s what scouts and recruiters look at,” McClurg explained. 

So last year’s juniors who are seniors this year only have their junior records and some kids who literally grew and gained muscle mass haven’t been able to showcase their skills, McClurg added. 

“I have one kid who was 5’10” and 165 pounds last year is now 6’2 and 205 pounds this year and he has exploded in his talent, but we haven’t been able to get him on the field to compare last year from this year, which is critical to getting recruited for Division I-A,” McClurg said. 

The California Department of Public Health announced in December it would not decide on youth sports until Jan. 25. According to the National Federation of High Schools, 34 states completed a football season, while 30 states have begun playing basketball. California is one of seven states that have not had any sanctioned high school sports since March.

“I am worried for our current junior players as well because without this year to measure their progress into next year, which who knows if that will happen, how will they get the attention they earned over playing their entire lives of whatever sport they love,” McClurg said. 

The California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees all sports, said it is relying on state guidelines to make any decisions to resume high school sports. The Stay At Home Order would need to be lifted and then officials will evaluate which low-risk sports can play based on the previous colored tier system. Football in particular would need to be in the “orange” tier. 

“I am in the unique position because I am also a dad to two twin boys who have grown up thinking of nothing but football,” McClurg said. “I never pushed them into this, but I encourage them the whole way.” 

SYHS varsity football players Christian Shaw and Luke Gildred expressed how much football has been a big part of their lives.

The “Let Them Play” movement was conceived to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow high school student athletes to return to competition and the importance of youth sports. Photo by Daniel Dreifuss

“For some of us, this is everything,” Shaw, a senior, said of playing high school football. “This is something we’ve worked for since we were 6 years old. For me, it means a bond to my brother, something I’ll never have with anyone else. The things that football is able to give, they’re not going to realize that, the people that are making the decisions.

“By doing things like this (rally), we’ve got to keep showing them how much we care.”

Gildred, a sophomore quarterback, said playing football is more than compiling statistics.

“Football is more about what you learn and life lessons,” he said. “I feel like if our whole season is taken away, we’ll always know with football that we’ll have our brotherhood. And that’s something we can always rely on.”

The teams are hoping for answers soon on whether or not they’ll be able to play this season. 

“If we can get at least one game played this year that will help our athletes not only focus on staying conditioned and healthy to get to that point, but their athletic careers going into college,” McClurg said. 

Beyond the college admissions or scholarships opportunities senior and junior athletes may lose out on, all student athletes’ mental health is in question. The University of Wisconsin released a study on the effects of school sports closures on student athletes and found in the short-term mental health impacts decisions on using drugs/alcohol, staying in school and even graduating from high school. In long term those decisions can become chronic and can determine whether they go on to college and having meaningful lifelong relationships. 

“Medical providers, parents, and policy-makers must recognize the mental health strain the current pandemic is placing on adolescent athletes,” the study reports. “Schools play an important role in providing access to mental health services for disadvantaged students.” 

The study also said limiting exercise and organized sports opportunities during the 2020/21 academic year can be expected to exacerbate these harmful health conditions and outcomes.

To read more on this study visit

Another study done by the University of Wisconsin suggests that high school athletes aren’t at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. One of the finding was out of 30,000 athletes, 271 COVID-19 cases were reported. Those attributed to sports contact were 0.5%. The greatest percentage came from household contact (55%) and community contact (40.7%). About 30% couldn’t determine how they were transmitted the disease.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also said that re-engaging in sports activity has physical and psychological health benefits for children and adolescents.

“Participating in sports allows youth to improve their cardiovascular health, strength, body composition, and overall fitness,” according to the AAP report released in December of 2020. “Mentally, youth may experience benefits from the increased socialization with friends and coaches as well as from the return to a more structured routine. These psychological and physical benefits can help support their developmental growth. Exercise also has immune system benefits.” 

McClurg and the SYHS athletic department have their conditioning schedule continuing to at least offer their athletes a way to stay in shape and to be ready when and if the seasons can start. 

“I really hope the governor and public health officials are listening,” McClurg said. “We will take it day by day and continue our goal of getting to play this year. We can’t get caught up in negative thoughts and we will work everyday to be strong once we can play.” 

For more information on “Let Them Play,” visit its Facebook page and subscribe to email updates at

Noozhawk’s Sports Editor Barry Punzal contributed to this story. He can be reached at