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Football canceled for some in Mississippi, cutting off pathway out of poverty

“Without this season, the chances for most of these seniors getting scholarships, I'd say it's slim to none,” one coach said.
Ontario Winn, left, at Forest Hill's senior workout in Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 5, 2020.Akasha Rabut / for NBC News

Every day this summer, Ontario Winn hit the gym. After spending his junior year warming the bench, Winn, now a senior at Forest Hill High School in Jackson, Mississippi, thought he finally had the size and skills to impress college football recruiters — and earn an athletic scholarship to a Division III school or junior college.

For many of his teammates at Forest Hill, where all students qualify for free lunch, the game is a means to an end. Their love of it comes second.

That way out disappeared last month. In August, Jackson Public Schools canceled all fall activities, citing Mississippi’s surging coronavirus infection rate. It was an unparalleled step in a state where the governor had just declared college football “essential.”

Winn's mom told him to stop training and get a job. He found one, making $7.25 an hour at a nearby McDonald's.

"That's not really enough to pay for college," Winn said.

While the majority of Mississippi's 138 public school districts have pushed forward with fall athletic seasons, 10 have bucked that trend, heeding the advice of public health officials and canceling fall activities. And these 10 school districts have a lot in common: All are among the lowest-performing in the state, all are overwhelmingly poor and all but one have a student body that is at least 93 percent Black.

As a result, some players and coaches argue that a decision that should protect students is, instead, taking opportunity from those who need it the most.

"For a lot of these kids, football is it," said Forest Hill coach Curtis Carter. “And I'm worried about these kids now, I am. Without this season, the chances for most of these seniors getting scholarships, I'd say it's slim to none.”

Image: Forest Hill coach Curtis Carter
"For a lot of these kids, football is it," said Forest Hill coach Curtis Carter.Akasha Rabut / for NBC News

Coaches and players say they recognize the good intentions behind the decision. But the question that keeps coming up is one of fairness.

Because not every school district has made the same choice, the decision to cancel football has become yet another way that the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting Black people in Mississippi, who are already twice as likely as white Mississippians to die from the disease.

“It’s one of the many ways that Black students and students from families with lower resources are continuing to be at a disadvantage and bear the brunt of the impacts of this disease,” said Scott Sargrad, a specialist in K-12 education from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington-based think tank.

“Even if the school districts are making what, from a public health standpoint, could be the right decision, it means those students aren’t going to get access to activities. And that really does matter to these issues of equality.”

‘Playing football to get somewhere for real’

On Aug. 16, two days after Jackson Public Schools canceled football, Rodricus Magee, a rising senior at Callaway High School in Jackson, started a petition to push for creating a smaller, district-wide season. It has nearly 1,000 signatures.

“Sports is a way to keep kids out of the streets and away from negative activities. We have rules for COVID-19 and those rules can be maintained and followed,” Magee wrote on the petition’s home page.

Although it’s the capital of Mississippi, Jackson, like the state itself, is poor. Twenty-seven percent of the city’s residents live in poverty, higher than Mississippi’s average of 20 percent — the highest of any state in the country. And many of Jackson’s public schools reflect these challenges.

After barely dodging a state takeover in 2017, the district has shed its failing grade, but it still gets a D, a designation that the state Board of Education bases, in part, on test scores, graduation rates and subject proficiency. And in some schools, including Callaway and Forest Hill, the percentage of students proficient in math remains in the single digits.

In the 50 years since integration came to public schools in Mississippi, a ring of majority white suburbs has formed around the now majority Black capital city. Today, these suburban districts are among the highest-rated in the state: Four have an A from the State Board of Education.

“We’re part of a big metropolitan area, and the kids in Madison, the kids in Rankin County, in all honesty, they already have better opportunities than we do,” Jaiden Vaughn, a senior at Callaway, said. “They’re probably playing football just to have fun. Most of us are playing football to get somewhere for real. But that’s not going to matter if a coach is watching them play.”

For students headed to Division I schools, a senior year is largely irrelevant, Carter said. Big offers to star players generally go out well before then. Deion Smith, a senior at Jackson’s Provine High School and Mississippi’s top-ranked prospect, committed to Louisiana State University in December, weeks before the state even had its first coronavirus case. But smaller programs, Carter said, aren’t looking for dazzling skill so much as growth from the previous season, which is what makes a senior year so crucial for some.

“I’m sure that there’s some kids it won’t hurt and some it will hurt. But, you know, there’s not a political way I can answer that question without making somebody mad,” said Glenn Davis, the head football coach at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Brookhaven, a small town about an hour south of Jackson.

Jackson Public School district officials say they fought to keep the season. But the sheer size of the district — the second-biggest in the state — especially when compared to its limited resources, made it impossible to do so safely. In 2018, a state-commissioned report determined that 63 percent of the structures in the school district were 40 to 60 years old.

A vehicle drives past a restaurant in Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 5, 2020.Akasha Rabut / for NBC News
Although it's the capital of Mississippi, Jackson, like the state, is poor. Twenty-seven percent of the city's residents live in poverty, higher even than Mississippi's average of 20 percent — the highest of any state in the country.Akasha Rabut / for NBC News

“A lot of times they are smaller facilities, they are older facilities and that sometimes poses a problem in our decision as well,” Daryl Jones, the district’s athletic director, said. “The charge that we’ve been given is to watch out for the safety of our students, and in the long run, we felt that the decision was the best for our students and our community.”

‘Is it unfair? Yes.’

Even before the fall football season officially got underway, the virus had been linked to outbreaks among teams across the state. Late last month, entire teams at Smithville and Saltillo High Schools were sent to quarantine after players at both schools tested positive. And in mid-August, Nacoma James, one of the longest-tenured coaches at Lafayette High School, died after experiencing COVID-like symptoms.

Gov. Tate Reeves, who attended Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention sans mask, has leaned on the same argument for football that he’s used to push for reopening schools: The benefits of playing generally outweigh the relatively low risk that the virus poses to children and teenagers.

But that calculus, Sargrad points out, only works out if this virus affected everyone the same. And public health experts agree that it doesn’t. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the biggest risk factors for severe complications from the coronavirus include income level, pre-existing conditions and race, in addition to age.

Defensive lineman Deon Sanders, center, during Saturday morning workout on Sept. 5, 2020.Akasha Rabut / for NBC News

“COVID is a virus, it’s biology, it should impact everyone the same,” said Dr. Leandro Mena, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “But the legacy of racism is that Black populations are more vulnerable to health disparities.”

“Race is such a predictor of what’s called social determinants, you know? It predicts education, it predicts income, and in this society, it’s not easy to disconnect race from these economic markers because it predicts so many things,” Mena said.

Aside from health disparities, Jones said, income disparities make it more likely that Jackson students will be around older relatives.

“Some of our student athletes, they do live with grandparents in addition to parents or their caretakers are elderly aunts and uncles,” Jones said. “So, yes, the student athlete, if they contract COVID, most of the time they bounce back pretty quickly. But when they go home to parents and grandparents who have those pre-existing conditions, they might not bounce back as fast.”

“We’re making this decision for our community,” Jones said. “Is it unfair? Yes. But what hasn’t been unfair about this virus and who it’s hurting?”

Late nights working mean missed opportunities

The same day that Winn found out that football had been canceled, he and a teammate reached out to a coach in the Hinds County School District to see about transferring. Every year hundreds of high school athletes move for better recruiting visibility, sometimes even moving out of state. It’s even earned a nickname: “the transfer merry-go-round.” As entire states shutter or delay fall sports programs, however, the coronavirus has added another layer of urgency to it.

But the coach they reached out to delivered bad news — Winn’s district had made the call after Mississippi’s eligibility deadline had passed. If Winn transferred, he wouldn’t be eligible to play. Without money to go out of state or to a local private school, Winn was stuck in Jackson.

On the phone at the end of August, Winn sounded tired. Everyone on his team had been totally committed to following safety guidelines while training, he said. They were socially distancing and wiping down equipment. They’d even pooled their own money and ordered anti-transmission goggles and masks.

"Most days I am pretty tired. My mom has to wake me up for school because if not, I oversleep," Ontario Winn said after the workout.Akasha Rabut / for NBC News

Jackson Public Schools was struggling to make it up to the players. In late August, they announced that they would allow “workouts” in small groups and encouraged more one-on-one skills training with coaches. In an effort to showcase their seniors for recruiters, the district would be taping football practices and hosting September and December events to showcase players’ skills.

One Saturday, Jackson Public Schools held a senior workout at Forest Hill. At 9:30 a.m., as the workout got underway, just a single senior was on the field.

An hour in, Winn showed up. He works the night shift at McDonald’s and didn’t get home until after 1 a.m. the night before. In the past week, Winn had already missed a few early morning workouts.

“Most days I am pretty tired. My mom has to wake me up for school because if not, I oversleep,” Winn said after the workout.

Justin Harris, a senior at Callaway, said the cancellation of the season has added to the challenges facing those in Jackson.

"I think football really kept a lot of kids out of trouble,” Harris said. “It’s not fair.”