Jordan Diaz standing in the middle of a football field
No games will be played on Omaha Central's football field this fall. Photographer: James Rowland

Sam Scott was relaxing before heading off to work on August 7. He was just sitting on his couch when something on Twitter caught his eye. 

“Wow, this is really happening,” he said to himself.

Scott, a former Omaha North High School football player, never made it to work that day. Instead, he answered questions from local TV stations about the postponement of all Omaha Public Schools fall sports until at least October 16. 

The decision angered and disappointed many Omaha families. 

Three weeks later, on August 31, a crowd of 200 — mostly student athletes, coaches, parents and fans — protested outside of OPS headquarters on western edge of downtown Omaha in frustration over the decision to postpone fall sports, including former Huskers football player and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers who spoke in support of fall sports during the ongoing pandemic. 

Then, on September 8, OPS announced that fall sports would be attempted during the spring season, which would require changing the rules to allow student athletes to participate in two sports during the same season. 

The OPS decision even caught the head of the Nebraska School Activities Association off guard, said Jay Bellar, executive director of the Nebraska Schools Activities Association, which charged school districts this summer to consult the local health department when deciding on fall sports. The chain of reactions included several families changing districts and buying new houses just miles down the road, so their student athletes could play for another school. 

Bellar said he didn’t foresee the fallout this significant.

“I really didn’t think that would happen just because of what took place in OPS,” Bellar said. “But I should have known better because football is very, very big in Nebraska, and they want their sons to be able to play football.”

Every other one of the 272 school districts in Nebraska are playing sports this fall, including schools five to 10 minutes away in Millard, Bellevue, Papillon and Gretna. Omaha High School athletes pushed back on social media pushback in the weeks that followed with the hashtag #LetUsPlay. 

Bellar said the NSAA backs the decision of the school district. 

“If OPS thinks that’s best for their kids, we can’t second guess them,” he said. “We know that it’s hard on kids, and I wish it could have been different, I really do, but I do respect where OPS is coming from. This pandemic isn’t fair, and so when we talk about being fair to everybody, it’s not going to be. It’s not fair to Omaha that they didn’t get to participate, but that virus isn’t fair either.”

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Some player’s parents feel like the OPS superintendent Cheryl Logan, Ed.D. and other administrators are not listening or even responding efficiently to their complaints.

Scott has since transferred to Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha in order to play. 

His father, Greg Scott, is one of the parents who thinks Logan made a “horrible decision.”

“I think she’s listening to only one side of the argument,” he said. “She’s listening to people that are adhered to completely by the fears and potentials of COVID.”

Greg also believes Logan isn’t focusing on the right statistics when it comes to COVID.

“There’s a complete disregard to paying attention to the recovery rate and how many people are actually dying,” he said. “It’s all based 100% on who’s getting COVID, and that’s the number. That’s the number they go by. They act like if you get it, you’re dead.”

Sam has scholarship offers from four FCS schools and is close to getting an offer from Wyoming and Nebraska, Greg said. The Scott family said they tried hard to keep Sam at Omaha North while still playing football this fall.

“We didn’t want to pull him out, and we asked a lot of questions, and we talked to the NSAA,” Greg said. “We were just brought to a place where we had enough.”

One positive out of this situation for Sam is a new love of the game, his father said. Sam now realizes how much playing football means to him after it was temporarily taken away.

Not only has the pandemic and the decision taken football away from the OPS athletes, but all fall sports — including cross country, volleyball, softball, boys tennis and girls golf — were postponed. Unlike football, however, most of these sports have club sports for students to play.

“It’s the kids that play football that are screwed,” Greg said. “They don’t have club for football. Your high school is your football. I’m not minimizing their impact, but it is true. They have an outlet they can at least look at.”

Like a lot of parents who are frustrated, Tiffany Diaz, mother of Jordan Diaz, a football player at Omaha Central High School, said she was devastated when she first heard the announcement.

“They worked for this,” Tiffany said. “It just got taken away. No parent survey … They just said, ‘We’re taking it.’ We’re the parents. We should have a say on if they play.”

Tiffany said she signs a yearly waiver to release her son to play football with the risk of injury and even death. 

Greg guaranteed “every parent” would be willing to sign a COVID waiver to allow their child to play with the risk of illness or death.

Jordan has seen his recruitment slow down after the decision by OPS. Kansas State University was looking, he said, along with Minnesota and Wisconsin, but the offers have declined. Another problem with the decision to cancel fall sports is the impact on students’ academic performance.

“Sports are a big thing for kids because sports are really what brings kids to school and makes them want to do good in school, and I feel like it will affect kids in school if they don’t have sports,” Jordan said.

Jaylen Davis, another Omaha Central High School football player, sees the same problem as Jordan.

“It really made me mad because people really go to school just to play sports and keep up their grades just so they can keep playing,” Davis said.

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When members of the OPS family protested on August 31, they asked for Dr. Logan and OPS officials to make a change regarding its decision. 

“I know she can tell the kids are really devastated by not giving us this opportunity,” Jordan said. “She saw them protesting and wanting to get back into fall sports. I think we will make a change. It might not be a humongous change, but any change can help with the situation.”

Nearly one week after the protest, at a special school board meeting on September 8, OPS revealed a plan to play fall sports in the spring. 

Still, some said it was not a good idea.

“We have a lot of multiple sport athletes that do track or soccer in the spring,” Jordan said. “Even though football is a big sport, they might want to play those other sports as well, and it would be really hard for them to do that.”

Some OPS teachers also coach both in the fall and spring. If there is a spring season, students looking to enroll early and play spring football at their respective universities would not get to showcase their film before national signing day on February 3. 

“The main reason why I chose Skutt Catholic is because I am not up for a spring season,” Sam said. “The deadline for signing dates are probably not going to change … So you’re playing football for what? You’re competing for what? No state championship.”

Bellar said he isn’t sure how the spring season will work as the NSAA awaits the proposal from OPS.

“Nothing is off the table,” Bellar said. “If it’s just OPS, they would play OPS people, and if the proposal is two or three games, I don’t know what that’s going to look like.”

Changing schedules for sports might not sit well with other schools in the state, either.

“I’ve got 304 schools, and 297 of them are not Omaha,” Bellar said. “They’re going to say, ‘Wait a minute. We went through this. Why should we change our seasons to make them happy?’”

Current NSAA bylaws prohibit athletes from participating in two sports during the same season. If the NSAA allowed that to happen this year, many small schools could be upset because they have been asking about dual participation for years, and the NSAA has always said no.

The best solution in the eyes of Jordan is, of course, reversing course and allowing OPS to start competing immediately.

“I wish we could get back in and play this week’s games,” Jordan said, adding that he would be in favor of playing a six-game schedule with OPS. 

“We need some sort of ability to have some film out there for colleges showing what we can do and how good we are,” he said. “The best opportunity for us to get back in would be to jump back in the season with all of the teams.”

Greg said he believes his family made the right choice to change schools and houses.

“We realize the risk. There’s a lot at stake,” he said. “You’re selling your home, and you’ve got a lease on a new place, but I would do it in a heartbeat again because we love our son, and we want an opportunity to be able to play because once high school football is done, it’s done.”

Cody Frederick is a fourth-year student majoring in sports media and journalism and minoring in business administration and horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is from a small town in Northeast Nebraska called Winside, and he is currently interning for UNLimited Sports out of Lincoln.