Demanding state ‘Let Them Play’ winter sports, group sues MDHHS chief

Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Let Them Play Michigan, an organization urging the state to let winter sports begin, has filed a complaint against the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to try to force the ban to be lifted.

The complaint was filed Tuesday morning in the Michigan Court of Claims against MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel. The plaintiffs are listed as Let Them Play, the Michigan Amateur Youth Hockey League and several parents, including the mother of Tri-Unity Christian basketball player Brady Titus, who are concerned about their kids’ future in sports.

Also among the plaintiffs are Brian and Rona Dethloff, whose son, a Mona Shores hockey player, died of suicide Jan. 18. The suit blames the death on “mental struggles he endured from the continued delays in winter sports in Michigan.” Their other son is also a hockey player.

“This is for the best interest of the student-athletes. They need to be on the court for their mental health, their emotional health, their physical health and their long-term education and career pathways,” attorney Peter Ruddell of Detroit-based law firm Honigman LLP said during a Tuesday morning press conference about the suit.

The complaint claims the MDHHS ban of winter sports violates the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection, procedural and due process, free assembly, and free education clauses, as well as Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and state administrative procedures.

Ruddell said while there is not a constitutional right to athletics, there does not appear to have been a case that explicitly linked athletics to quality of education.

It also lists several arguments Let Them Play Michigan put forth to MDHHS in a letter last week (PDF), including that data shows most high school student-athletes in Michigan have largely avoided contracting COVID-19 during the fall season and a Wisconsin study showing low COVID-19 risk among its student-athletes.

It goes on to say that sports are an integral part of education for many and that the ban is limiting student-athletes’ shot at scholarships. Ruddell went as far as saying keeping athletes from competing is an equity issue, saying wealthier players can join private travel teams playing in surrounding states without bans while those from lower-income families cannot.

“Those with the means are able to travel to Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, wherever, to conduct their sport, to compete and play, while those who rely on the public system are left behind,” he said.

He also argued that even though competition isn’t happening right now, students are still participating in gym class, which would in theory present the same risks.

Current restrictions from MDHHS ban winter sports through Feb. 21. Players, coaches and parents recently testified before the Republican-led Legislature to explain why they thought play should resume and held a protest outside the state Capitol in Lansing over the weekend.

“I give the governor an awful lot of credit for the view that she has had on reducing the transmission of COVID within the state. I think it’s a laudable goal and I think she has been singularly focused on that,” Ruddell said. “The problem that these student-athletes and parents have is just that: that she’s been singularly focused on that. And we think that there is a broader impact of the ban on indoor athletics that is negatively impacting these student-athletes that is not warranted based on the data or science.”

In a statement to News 8 Tuesday, an MDHHS spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but said the agency and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’ “decisive action” to slow the spread of COVID-19 during the recent surge may have saved as many as 1,960 lives. MDHHS added it “does not make decisions based on lawsuits, but on data and the ongoing advice of public health experts.”

“The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Governor Whitmer took decisive action during the recent surge of COVID-19 cases that threatened to overrun hospitals. According to recent data from the University of Michigan School of Public Health, those actions likely prevented over 100,000 new cases and 1,960 or more deaths. As the numbers in Michigan continue to decline, and as the governor has already indicated, the administration is reviewing current mitigation measures, including those around contact sports. As to the particular lawsuit, the administration does not generally comment on litigation and does not make decisions based on lawsuits, but on data and the ongoing advice of public health experts.”

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

The Michigan High School Athletic Association says it is prepared to get competition started within days from an OK from the state.

Ruddell noted Let Them Play Michigan has not had any contact with MHSAA about its legal complaint.

—News 8’s Joe LaFurgey contributed to this report.

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