Let Them Play

Emerging research on COVID-19 and the safety of soccer.

Posted Aug 13, 2020

 Jeffrey F Lin/Unsplash
Source: Jeffrey F Lin/Unsplash

One thing made apparent by how Americans are responding to the coronavirus pandemic is that many of us simply reject the notion of expertise. The death of expertise is an unfortunate fact of life in the United States. People are now dying due to this, including a 30-year-old man who died after attending a COVID party.

My concern is that those who often trust expertise fail to do so in particular cases. In this short essay, I'm going to encourage us to look at some emerging research related to youth sports. I'm not an epidemiologist or immunologist. I'm a philosophy professor, specializing in ethics. With that in mind, there is research that points to allowing kids to play.

I'm also a high school girls soccer coach. I'm doing my best to lead, serve, and encourage my players during this difficult time. Soon, I'll be trying to do the same with my students, both online and in a limited in-person classroom environment. I hope my players are learning grit, patience, and care for others. I've coached some of them for their entire middle and high school careers, and am thankful to get to coach a sport I love and help the girls on our team become better players and people.

I supported the lockdowns to flatten the curve, as well as current social distancing and mask regulations. As someone who studies and writes about ethics for a living, there are many good moral arguments for what we've done, and what many of us are continuing to do in order to protect and preserve human life and health, especially of the more vulnerable among us.

Yet I have also come across several false equivalencies as people discuss and debate these issues. Just this week I came across the claim that if we can't have kids in school safely, then we can't have them participating in high school sports safely. I understand the sentiment behind this, but it still is an example of flawed logic.

Being outside in many sports is much different than being in an enclosed space, like a school, all day. I was surprised and encouraged to learn that there is recent soccer-specific research related to the coronavirus. It is encouraging that soccer appears to be a relatively low-risk activity, given some of the emerging research. We should look at each individual sport on a case-by-case basis.

To see why, consider the research:

  • There is significant data showing that soccer is low-risk in terms of both proximity and contact. A recent study conducted by experts at Aarhus University and the University of Southern Denmark determined youth and adolescent soccer players are within a distance of 1.5 meters of each other for only 60 seconds per hour during games. And in a majority of those cases, the proximity lasts for less than one second.[1] Close contact requiring tracing as defined by the CDC is anyone who had sustained close contact—being within 6 feet of an infected individual for at least 15 minutes. 
  • Another study done in light of the pandemic analyzed nearly 500 Dutch matches and found that in only 0.2% of them were two players within a single meter for more than 30 seconds. 50-80% of these extremely limited events were players convening during referee reviews, celebrating a goal or other game interruptions—all of which can be eliminated. The vast majority of the game provided a socially distanced arrangement of the players on the field. The report also concluded that in 98.2% of the matches, there was minimal to no risk for players to transmit the virus to one another.[2]
  • The American Academy of Pediatricians recently released their interim guidance for youth sports. They noted that “Re-engaging in sports activity with friends has both physical and psychological health benefits for children and adolescents,” and that “These psychological and physical benefits can help support their developmental growth. Exercise also has immune system benefits.” In addition, the AAP called out the potential negative impacts of a lost season for student-athletes: “Time away from teammates and coaches can be hard on athletes both physically and mentally … Individuals who are unable to participate in milestone events, such as their final high school sports season or a state championship tournament, may be emotionally affected more than other individuals.”[3]

Each individual context is different. There is no one-size-fits-all way to approach decisions about school and youth sports across our country. But it is important to base those decisions on what we know or have good reason to believe. I want my players and young athletes across the country to be safe, happy, and healthy. I think we can do that and let them play.


[1] Dean, S. (2020, May 12). Amateur footballers at lower risk of spreading coronavirus than elite players. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/yyxnvexb

[2] Only minor risk of Covid-19 transmission in football match. (2020, June 17). Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/y5mpw9ro  

[3] AAP. COVID-19 Interim Guidance: Return to Sports. https://services.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/clinical-guidance/covid-19-interim-guidance-return-to-sports

Some of the above was taken from a letter from the Ohio soccer community, sent to the governor of that state.