After the last 26 months of disruption caused by COVID-19, anyone who has regular contact with a teenager can tell you the kids are not all right. Ask parents and educators, and they will share that the mental health challenge facing our adolescents is requiring the use of all our tools to help them heal, move forward and stay healthy while uncertainty still looms. One of these tools that we have is sports.

Sports are great for a young person’s physical and mental health, but they are also an extension of the educational program, especially when we consider the social-emotional needs of the whole child. Participation on a sports team can enhance a young person’s sense of belonging at a time when many students have experienced extraordinary isolation. Sports can provide motivation to attend school, positive role models through coaches and peers, and deter substance abuse. Sports brings kids and communities together after a long time of being so desperately apart.

This is why I have been disappointed to see the New Mexico Activities Association, after an initial pandemic response of loosening eligibility bylaws, return so abruptly to exclusionary rules around eligibility for kids to participate in sports based on metrics like transfer status.

While transfer bylaws are in place to prevent recruitment and undue influence on student-athletes, their current enforcement does not always reflect the reality of students’ experiences. The NMAA did not penalize students who transferred or played for other districts during the 2020-21 school year, provided they returned to their initial school for 2021-22. Yet for some who returned to school this year, their familiar landscapes had changed. Students initiated transfers for all sorts of reasons: to be closer to friends and family, to address mental health, to seek a different academic opportunity after such a long time away. Let’s understand these decisions not as a scheme to defraud the NMAA, but rather as part of a complex and necessary process of kids and families seeking out the right school environment after so many months of the wrong one.

NMAA tells students that participation is a privilege and not a right. But our children have a right to heal from a crisis that was not of their making. The pandemic is not over, and even when it ends, that healing is going to take time. Don’t exclude them from sports at a time when they need it so much. For most of our young athletes, participation is not about gaming the system or being the best. It’s about them being their best selves. Let the kids play sports! Let them rediscover their self-esteem and their sense of belonging that was taken from them and that they desperately need back to emerge whole from this crisis.

Chris Geissinger is a concerned parent about the well-being of his and other children in New Mexico not being about to participate in sports after living through a pandemic.

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