Tarek Tomes sat on a bench outside the East Ridge High gymnasium one evening last week. Under normal circumstances, he might have been inside helping basketball players work on their skills. Or maybe watching his son play baseball on one of the fields down the hill.
Instead, Tomes’ immediate task is to create a plan that will allow all Minnesota kids resume playing sports.
“This is so important to me,” he says.
Tomes is commissioner of Minnesota IT Services, appointed by Gov. Tim Walz to that cabinet position in April 2019. Making sure 40,000 state employees were equipped to work remotely when the world got turned upside down was no small task.
Now he has another assignment: Overseeing youth sports during the pandemic.
Why did the governor put an IT guy in charge of that? Because Tomes is someone you’d want advocating for your child.
I’ve known Tomes for years. He’s a friend. He’s not some detached bureaucrat. He’s a coach, a sports dad, a former athlete and a smart, principled man who is passionate about kids.
Tomes was an Army brat who played professional basketball in Germany after high school. His wife is a doctor, and they have five kids ranging in age from 29 to 4.
His oldest son is a chief resident at Hennepin County Medical Center. His middle son just graduated from the Air Force Academy, where he played basketball. His daughter plays basketball at the University of St. Thomas. His youngest son plays for Tyus Jones’ AAU basketball program.
Tomes is a varsity assistant basketball coach at East Ridge, and he also coached his son’s seventh-grade traveling team. He has been heavily invested in youth sports for years.
“When you mention the term youth athletics,” Tomes says, “it brings about a lot of emotion in people.”
Now more than ever. The governor’s plan for loosening stay-at-home restrictions has turned divisive. Many people are ready for society to reopen with far fewer restrictions. That anxiousness is evident in youth sports, too.
This is a complicated situation because it involves kids, their health and their mental well-being. Kids need activities with friends. They need their normal routine again. They need to have fun doing something they love. There are also health risks to consider with large groups and an innate impulse to protect children from harm.
No approach will satisfy everyone. Tomes knows that.
“There’s certainly a large number of folks that want to go right to games,” he says.
Out of curiosity, I went through my phone contacts and texted friends who have kids involved in sports with a question: Would you allow your kid to return to sports today assuming health and safety guidelines were in place?
The results: 34 said yes; 10 said either no, maybe or they needed information on guidelines. Hardly scientific, and this was different sports, different states, different genders, different ages.
My youngest is still involved in sports. I would vote yes, under the proposal sent to the governor’s office by several baseball and softball associations outlining safety protocols.
Understandably, personal feelings on this topic run the spectrum. One friend whom I admire greatly answered my question with a firm no, which I respect.
“For me personally,” Tomes says, “you want it to be perfect, but if we took just [one] precaution more than we needed to, I think we’ll have been on the right side of it.”
Tomes oversees a working group of officials from 30 to 40 sports associations, which collaborated on a Phase 1 plan that takes effect June 1. Among the guidelines, teams can begin workouts with a maximum of 10 people in a group or “pod.” Tomes says he won’t be surprised if some teams or organizations rush back that day, or if some choose not to resume just yet.
His group is discussing the next steps, with the possibility of several more phases. Some summer leagues and tournaments already have been cancelled. It figures to be some time before games are permitted.
Tomes said decisions will be guided by medical experts and data. He believes lessons learned will benefit youth sports long after the pandemic ends.
“Learning how to slowly resume activity in a safe way is really important,” he says.
The coach and sports dad in him understands the urgency to get back to competition. He wants that too. But keeping everyone involved safe remains his priority.