Track coach fired for refusing to force athletes to wear masks

  • Pembroke Academy went into lockdown Thursday over a bomb threat written in pencil on a bathroom wall.

  • Pembroke Academy and Bishop Brady at the track meet at Pembroke on Tuesday, April 22, 2014. Ariana van den Akker

Monitor columnist
Published: 4/5/2021 5:26:29 PM

The track and field coach at Pembroke Academy was fired Monday over masks.

Brad Keyes wasn’t going to force his athletes to wear them this season, and he wasn’t willing to cover up his opinion on yet another odd scenario caused by the pandemic.

Keyes, in his third year of coaching at Pembroke Academy, sent an email like a javelin to Athletic Director Fred Vezina last week.

“I’ll come straight to the point,” he said. “I will not put kids on the track and tell them to run any races while wearing masks.”

Brutally honest in his message to Vezina, Keyes said the athletic directors and school boards that followed New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association recommendations and agreed to outdoor mask-wearing were being dishonest to the athletes, by making decisions without wisdom or science.

“No, the real reason I won’t do it is because it’s senseless, irrational, cowardice b------t and I will not help cover that up,” Keyes wrote. “I will not stand up in front of the kids and lie to them and tell them that these masks are doing anything worthwhile out in an open field with wind blowing and the sun shining.”

“Fire me if you must,” was the title of his follow up message. On Monday, his school bosses did just that. He’s posted his letters and rationale behind them on his track and field website

The pandemic has turned institutions upside down, and none have been effected more than schools and their daily routines of activities.

In this fourth athletic season since COVID struck, the NHIAA – the governing body of high school sports in the Granite State – recommended that athletes wear masks during the upcoming spring season during all running events. The hurdles and throwing events were exempt, giving those competitors a choice.

After the cluster of teams competing with Pembroke had joined hands at a recent meeting and agreed to follow the recommendations, Keyes broke rank, citing potential breathing problems and a lack of any data that shows COVID poses a danger to young athletes running outside.

In essence, Keyes was resigning, well aware that he was backing administration officials into a corner.

Keyes’s action was bold in that other coaches were against the enforcement of mask wearing as well, yet went along to calm the waters.

Stan Lyford has been a track and cross country coach at Portsmouth High for 47 years. He possesses a strong voice within the track community, sitting on the executive board of the New Hampshire Track and Field Coaches Association, and he had nothing good to say about the rules requiring runners to wear masks.

He noted the vast differences between students sitting in close proximity inside the classroom versus competing in an outdoor sport like spring track.

“Brad Keyes is not alone on the mask issue,” Lyford said in an email. “Everyone I talk to thinks that wearing masks while running is a bad idea. It is not like soccer or other sports where you run a little and ease off. Track is full speed ahead at all times.”

Still, Lyford ended his email by saying, “I will go along (unhappily) with the state’s rules. I personally can’t imagine myself running with a mask.”

Keyes’s argument went beyond the ill effects of wearing something that inhibits your breathing while running. He said he wanted to tell his team the truth, and in this case administrators were conveying a false message about the dangers of COVID. 

“I will will not deceive them into thinking that these restrictions are somehow necessary or sensible,” Keyes wrote.

He acknowledged that the pandemic is deadly and the vulnerable and elderly should be first in line for the vaccine. But overreaching in this manner, he said, is unfair, and was only implemented as an insurance policy against liability.

“It’s poorly thought out,” Keyes said by phone. “They don’t know what they are doing.”

Keyes, 51, was measured in his responses and said he’s well aware he forced Vezina’s hand. For his part, Vezina told Keyes in an email he behaved in an “unprofessional manner.” 

Vezina said by phone Monday that the school board had expected him to follow the NHIAA’s lead, and that’s what he did. 

“Inside we wore masks,” Vezina said by phone, “and now back outside we will continue that based on the recommendations we have received.”

Meanwhile, Keyes hammered home one of his main stances. He said he had heard from other coaches, who told him their athletes were instructed, with a wink, not to worry if their mask dropped down a little, into what’s been called a chin diaper, near the start line.

To Keyes, that’s encouraging cheating, and he made that clear in a post telling the local community he’d been fired.

“They are going to tell their athletes to ignore (the policy) to cheat. I won’t be a part of that.”

Keyes said he’ll open a non-profit training camp this summer for all ages. He also said he knew what was coming after his initial email to Vezina.

“It is what I expected and I understand Fred’s position,” Keyes said, shortly after he had received the athletic director’s response. “I said I will not follow the rules and he made his choice and now it’s up to everyone else to make their choice.”

Superintendent Patty Sherman did not return a request for comment. 

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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