New Hampshire track coach canned for mask-defying letter to boss

Committing vocational suicide in defense of personal principles has its place. This isn't one of them

I have two nephews, both of whom attend high school in New Hampshire. One of them runs track, and his coach was fired on Monday after sending a letter to his school’s athletic director on Saturday stating that he wouldn’t instruct his athletes to wear masks during meets this season. This stance is in opposition to the guidance handed down to schools by the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA) for the spring season.

You can read the letter the coach, Brad Keyes, sent to the Pembroke Academy athletic director upon learning of the guidelines on the site Keyes maintains for the team. Keyes has since posted updates to the page, but its structure makes it impossible to link to these individually. So far, these updates include a letter called “Fire Me If You Must,” which Keyes posted Saturday along with his missive to his boss, and “I Have Been Fired - A Farewell Message,” posted Monday.

Keyes is demonstrably correct in all of his material statements about the lack of COVID-19 transmission risk outdoors, and the NHIAA’s exempting the hurdles and throws from its masking guideline can be taken as tacit admission that the masking requirement is essentially for show. But as much as I can’t stand it when people organize around any sort of movement or idea fraught with objective foolishness and clear, avoidable costs—be it traditional religious foolishness, masking foolishness, or “girls can have testes too” foolishness—in this case I believe the coach made an unwise choice simply because a lot of other people’s immediate futures were yoked to his kamikaze mission. For that reason, I wish he had saved it for end of the school year. (As a point of trivia, Fred Vezina, the Pembroke Academy athletic director, was a phys-ed teacher at Bishop Brady during my coaching years there.)

A lot of coaches have worked hard to ensure that New Hampshire kids can enjoy as complete a season as possible, just as they did in the fall. In some respects, among the fastest kids, graduating seniors who know where they’re headed this fall have it easier than the underclasspersons still intent on impressing college coaches with their times. And although track is a team sport, it’s really about individual marks for kids at most schools, especially distance runners and even more so in the modified 2021 season.

To go in one of a million possible directions here, the spring of junior year is often when kids who have been steadily knocking at the door of being really good, if not elite, make a real splash for the first time. (This happened for me, as I went from a 9:32.5 indoor 3.000 meters to a 9:50.1 3,200 meters in a matter of months; this was mainly because I took up lifting weights and became frighteningly swole in a short time, with the effects of this rampage persisting today.) The whole idea behind pushing through the realities of COVID-19 and the attendant human-generated nonsense is to give kids who do track and field a chance to get out there and compete, and, for the less gifted, to at least feel part of something coherent while adults energetically go on screwing up both the running world and the nation at large.

Track and cross-country coaches don’t get paid enough to do extra work just to ensure their own standing, and even if they were compensated handsomely, most of them would still go into the profession out of basic nerdy empathy: We* remember what it was like to be young, motivated and in search of mentors who obviously remembered what it was like to be a dedicated but psychologically labile teenage runner.

High-school track officials have always imposed dumb rules on kids. In my day, you couldn’t wear a watch in cross-country or track races. If you had a T-shirt on that was anything but either white or the solid color of your uniform, your team could be disqualified by any number of dickish, nitpicky coaches. I remember standing on the starting line of a cross-country meet on a very cold and windy day and having to wait a few extra seconds for the race to start because some kid a few boxes down had to frantically wriggle out of his wrongly colored T-shirt. Only a kid from Nashua and its purple uniforms would have been dumb enough in those days to sport a chartreuse undershirt, but I think that’s basically what happened, and although I remember hoping he froze his ass off in the race, it was still a dumb rule.

Hell, after a heroic but insufficient 1,600-meter leg in a distance medley relay at Portsmouth High School, a rare treat in those days, I bounced a baton off the side of an elderly official’s head after “pantsing” him—all high-school track officials were all over 80 in those days, and a few are probably still working the meets at Dartmouth today, baseball hats perched high and askew atop their stately white heads—and after a short conference, our second-place squad was disqualified from the event. Or maybe I just threw the baton against a chain-link fence in mild disgust and some frizzy-haired tool from Maine who looked exactly like Screech from Saved by the Bell, which had not yet been invented, reported this flagrant episode to one of the Abe Simpson types in charge of the meet, and that was enough to get the relay team bounced. Sadly, I was an otherwise entertaining but less-than-exemplary team captain.

My own position on wearing masks outdoors while running is really no different from that of Keyes, and I share his frustration with what is undeniably a charade. I made this video last summer, when it was still mostly funny that people believed they could be infected with diseases via physically impossible mechanisms.

When I ask my friends to consider the data or even articulate what it is that compels them to wear masks outside even far from other faces, I get mostly mumbles about former alive people like Herman Cain and vague, distant looks over my shoulder, little different than when a religious proselytizer of the distinctly bandwagon-jumping-Christian sort tries to explain why their private revelation of an already “revealed” God should make one bit of difference in how I or any others behave besides personal-plus-social momentum being on their side. And I want to dislike people for holding such decrepit beliefs when they inconvenience me personally, but in addition to this not improving anything for anyone, it’s not really anyone’s fault.

At the same time, I remain within compliance of my local stupid laws, even if that’s not enough to satisfy a lot of local ignoramuses and zealots, who don’t want to see unmasked faces anywhere, even when they have to squint just to check. These people are annoying and wrong, and this annoyance is amplified by the signs on their lawns boasting that SCIENCE IS REAL. But if I were to take on the responsibility of being part of an organization, which is never going to happen for the rest of my pitiable life, I would have to make trade-offs, and to me most of these would be obvious, especially with kids in the equation.

One inevitable aspect of Keyes’ departure is that right-wingers—including and even mostly the kind who embrace QAnon ideas and incessantly post off-kilter nonsense themselves—will rise to Keyes’ defense, just as they have when it comes to transgender girls and high-school sports. This is a striking and ghastly, yet at some dark level hilarious, consequence of America’s divided ideals along with its incestuously intertwined media and political environments: To get the unvarnished truth about narratives the left is pushing in 2021, you must go spelunking into the right-wing media sewers, just as you’ll never get the full story about anything of importance Fox News rallies behind without also consulting the MSNBC or CNN outhouses. As much as the Ivy Leaguers in the left media have scrambled to conceal the fact that “intersex” means “has testes and is a male for sports purposes,” even the most blinkered Trump-loving bumpkin who doesn’t even follow sports will eventually seize on and report the discrepancy.

As I write this at close to midnight local time on Tuesday, this story has meandered out of the state as far as a couple of Boston outlets, and will perhaps percolate into the general running community. As I have access to an ear or two on the ground, I’ll probably update this post a few times before it sinks into the archives in earnest. That means that if you get these posts by email, you actually have to engage a Web browser to see these updates—the stuff already in your inbox will stay the same (if it doesn’t, see a neurologist). But so far, I know that the middle-school coach at one of the schools that feeds Pembroke Academy has also quit in solidarity, and the whole thing is quickly assuming the shape of a proxy war between New Hampshire’s quasi-libertarian redneck element and its dutiful liberal opposition, with the fates of the kids—including any at other schools who may wind up affected from on high because of this activity—barely an afterthought.