Shaq: We need sports ‘to give these children something to do’

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Shaquille O’Neal is on a mission to help student athletes across the country return to the competitive sports they love as soon as possible amidst the coronavirus pandemic. The NBA Hall of Famer says it’s important for young people to stay active instead of sitting around indoors playing video games — with safety as the utmost priority.

“The pandemic has disrupted youth sports and forced schools and hard-hit communities to slash the budgets of athletic programs,” O’Neal said in a video interview with Yahoo News. “We definitely need academic and athletic programs to give these children something to do.”

Tens of millions have lost their jobs this year. Small businesses continue to close. Declining tax revenue is leaving many local governments’ scrambling to close budget gaps. And many schools are opting to move some fall sports to 2021 as they crawl back to a semblance of old routines.

Athlete Zackery Schmeichel of Hazen High School holds a sign that reads "support your athletes" as people gather for a march and rally organized by Student Athletes of Washington (SAW), a group that formed to protest the postponement of fall sports due to COVID-19, at the state capitol in Olympia, Washington on September 3, 2020. (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)Athlete Zackery Schmeichel of Hazen High School holds a sign that reads "support your athletes" as people gather for a march and rally organized by Student Athletes of Washington (SAW), a group that formed to protest the postponement of fall sports due to COVID-19, at the state capitol in Olympia, Washington on September 3, 2020. (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)
Athlete Zackery Schmeichel of Hazen High School holds a sign that reads “support your athletes” as people gather for a march and rally organized by Student Athletes of Washington (SAW), a group that formed to protest the postponement of fall sports due to COVID-19, at the state capitol in Olympia, Washington on September 3, 2020. (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)

For the school districts and states that are ready to get back to action, O’Neal is looking to ease the financial burden. The Shaquille O’Neal Foundation is teaming up with Icy Hot, the pain relief brand, to launch “Get Game Ready,” an initiative to help high school athletics programs restart when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. To fund the school grants, Icy Hot is donating $1 to O’Neal’s foundation for every product sold.

“It was definitely the right thing to do,” O’Neal recalled. “My high school did not have a big budget when I went to military school. A lot of things have changed. … With all this new stuff that’s going on with the new protocols and mandates, a lot of these schools are going to need help.”

O’Neal, who has two standout sons competing on the collegiate and high school level in basketball, admits he’s no medical expert in advising athletes whether they should play. But he adds that sports have been the throughline to American society. 

Shareef O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal, and Shaqir O'Neal attend the 2019 NBA Awards presented by Kia on TNT at Barker Hangar on June 24, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Turner Sports)Shareef O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal, and Shaqir O'Neal attend the 2019 NBA Awards presented by Kia on TNT at Barker Hangar on June 24, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Turner Sports)
Shareef O’Neal, Shaquille O’Neal, and Shaqir O’Neal attend the 2019 NBA Awards presented by Kia on TNT at Barker Hangar on June 24, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for Turner Sports)

“I want everybody to make the decision that’s proper for them,” the 19-year NBA veteran said. “But sports are very important and they’ve always been part of our society. Sports and music are the only two things that when people are going through trouble, they’re the only two things that can help people ease their mind.”

For those student athletes who find themselves unsure if their season will take place this year, O’Neal encourages them to still do something.

“Find a way to safely stay active,” he said. “If you’re a basketball player, dribble in your backyard, lay down on your back and shoot a million jumpers. Close your eyes and act like you’re shooting at the rim. If you’re a football player, go to your local backyard and do football drills. … I’m not telling anybody to break the rules or push it, but as an athlete, we always have to stay active.”

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