Hero or not, fired coach says there’s no running away from mask issue

  • Former Pembroke track coach Brad Keyes at Memorial Field in Concord on Thursday. Even with all the notoriety over his firing, Keyes just wants the mask mandate for track players to end. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Former Pembroke track coach Brad Keyes at Memorial Field in Concord on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Even with all the notoriety over his firing, Keyes just wants the mask mandate for track players to end. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Former Pembroke track coach Brad Keyes at Memorial Field in Concord on Thursday. Even with all the notoriety over his firing, Keyes just wants the mask mandate for track players to end. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 4/15/2021 4:36:41 PM

Fox News giant Tucker Carlson called Brad Keyes, the recently-fired track coach at Pembroke Academy, a hero last week on live TV.

Then on Thursday, Keyes – who’s been on a virtual media tour since the school canned him for refusing to force his runners to wears masks – sought to add a dose of reality to Carlson’s praise.

“I don’t consider myself to be a hero,” Keyes said. “It takes away from the value of what being a hero really means. When someone has something important to lose, that’s the better way to present it. When a fireman runs into a burning building.”

While that’s true, Keyes certainly has followers, people who see his defiance as a criterion for great leadership, people passionate about getting behind him and showing muscle.

He’s conducted more than a dozen interviews since the Monitor first reported that he had backed Pembroke Athletic Director Fred Vezina into a corner, writing in an email, “I’ll come straight to the point. I will not put kids on the track and tell them to run any races while wearing masks.”

Vezina responded by saying Keyes’s action was done in an “unprofessional manner” and school officials fired him, touching conservatives like Carlson and Howie Carr, who saw Keyes as a voice of reason and reality at a time when Democrats seemed to be veering from science.

Keyes’s message was clear. The data – not to mention the logic – indicated that combining social distancing with running outside was a sure-fire way to stay safe.

No mask needed.

Also, Keyes has heard that coaches might instruct their runners, especially those in longer races such as the 1,600 meters, to clandestinely slip their masks down for easier breathing, gaining an unfair advantage.

Meanwhile, those who leave their masks in place could suffer from restricted breathing.

After his firing earlier this month, Keyes emailed the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, looking for some very specific facts.

For example, he wanted to know the names of the members of the Sports Medicine Committee, which formed the NHIAA’s recommendations. He sought their qualifications. He assumed there was a vote taken and he wanted the results. He assumed there were minutes taken, and he wanted them too.

Keyes mentioned that he had not heard back from the NHIAA. Reached Thursday, Executive Director Jeff Collins dodged questions about the logic of mask-wearing while running outside.

But he received Keyes’s message and plans to respond. First, though, Collins said changes are always possible, and hinted that Keyes and his concerns have been brought up at the association’s closed door meetings.

“Many of the pieces he brought up are conversations we had with the Sports Medicine Committee,” Collins said. “We’re trying to take in all considerations. We have received his letter, and we’re looking into it and we will have some conversations.”

For his part, Keyes said someone, somewhere, needed the backbone to do the right thing. The NHIAA and school boards and athletic directors, Keyes pointed out, were following a state-wide narrative in sheep-like fashion, overblowing the danger to avoid liability issues.

Pembroke and other area schools, including Bow, Bishop Brady, Coe-Brown, Hillsboro-Deering, Hopkinton, John Stark, Kearsarge, Merrimack Valley and Concord have agreed to require mask-wearing for all spring sports, including baseball, softball and tennis. Yes, tennis, too.

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

Most high schools have mandated masks, and that includes sports such as baseball, softball, track, even tennis.

The only exceptions to mask wearing will be in a few track events like hurdles, pole vault, shot put, discus and javelin, where face covering could be considered a safety hazard

“I think they were put it into place to say, ‘Look, we did something, look, we did everything we could to prevent the spread,’ ” Keyes said. “And in everything, that means wearing a mask no matter what. A tennis court, a singles match. I don’t know what to say.”

As if to bolster the point, Governor Chris Sununu announced Thursday the statewide mask mandate would expire Friday.

Keyes knew his three-year coaching stint at Pembroke would end once Vezina saw the email.

And then, something on the right clicked. The story fit neatly into today’s narrative. The one that politicizes everything, including the issues over government overreach and the fight over masks.

“We did not expect to be on Tucker Carlson five days later,” Keyes said. “We need to keep people talking and getting something done.”

The people talking and calling were not hard-left hosts like Rachel Maddow, or Anderson Cooper.

They were hard-right hosts like Carlson and Carr. Keyes, who said he’d speak to anyone to move his message forward, is a libertarian.

“I disagree with both sides on many things and I agree with both sides on many things,” he said.

Keyes told the story about a little boy who ran screaming from a playground sandbox after he’d seen another little boy nearby. The frightened boy’s grandmother apologized, saying her grandson had not seen another small child in nine months.

“We have reached the point of an extreme, irrational fear of   catching the virus,” Keyes said. “I’m disappointed by the liberal media. At first, they said to follow the science and now there is no science behind this.”

He’s not a scientist, of course. He’s also not a hero, he says. Some might disagree with that. Tucker Carlson did.

“You’re kind of a hero for doing this,” Carlson told Keyes, “and I hope you’re treated like one.”

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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