Desert Super Cup interviews: 500 teams descend on Phoenix, 2 parents share their stories (Exclusive)

Nearly a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, there are still headlines that can make my blood run cold. “500 Teams, Mostly Visiting, to Play Soccer Tournament in Arizona” would be one such headline, especially since I happen to live in Arizona.

There are several compelling facets to this particular story, and I’m looking at all of them with an in-depth Desert Super Cup series. (How did this event come to be? Who allowed it? Why would people attend? Find another chunk of the series here, links to be updated.)

In this installment, I wanted to examine what leads people to travel to attend a non-essential group event in another state during a pandemic. Namely, my state. So, I interviewed two people who did just that… and what they had to say was fascinating.

Travel Advisory: Can You Just Not?

It’s true the United States doesn’t like to place restriction on citizen movement domestically, even during a pandemic. And the picture of self-restraint, we ain’t. But leading into Thanksgiving this year, the CDC recommended Americans avoid travel and avoid gathering with those outside their own households.

The 2020 Desert Super Cup soccer tournament was held over Thanksgiving weekend anyway, running from Nov. 27–29, and drawing controversy along with thousands of visitors to the Phoenix metro area. This, against a backdrop of data indicators that offered a grim picture of local public health before the players’ bags were even packed. (For example, hospitals in Arizona were already running out of staffed beds days prior to the games, and not just for Covid patients — for everyone.)

While exact figures are unclear, 500 teams were expected, with 460 of them coming from out of town. Public officials have been contradicting each other over who approved the tournament, and event organizers have yet to respond to repeated requests for comment to confirm attendance and other details.

As this is youth sports, many parents and siblings tagged along to support their athletes. Event organizers issued guidelines and requested (but reportedly did not enforce) participants observe a “two spectator limit.”

I crawled social media to find attendees, reached out to half a dozen people, and interviewed two of them for this story.

I spoke with Rob Blake of the Denver area via Zoom, and Karen Adkison Dazalla of Southern California via Facebook Messenger. They were both gracious with their time and straightforward in their answers — answers that were often equal parts completely normal-sounding, and absolutely terror-inducing.

Let’s get into it.

Frequent Flier

Rob Blake is a software product manager and married father-of-four who lives just outside of Denver.

Rob and his son, a high school junior and avid soccer player, weren’t sitting around the dinner table with the rest of the family in their Douglas County home on Thanksgiving evening, though. Instead, the pair spent Thursday flying from Colorado to Arizona, then settling into their Phoenix-area hotel room ahead of the Desert Super Cup soccer tournament, which would kick off the following day.

Speaking with Rob was pleasant, easy. He was affable and upfront during our Zoom, seemingly happy to answer my questions, no matter how pointed they were. He came across as a reasonable, intelligent person.

And then he referred to himself as a “realist” in the same breath as he explained that since their trip wasn’t specifically related to the holiday, he and his son hadn’t actually “really traveled.” Oh, boy, I thought.

Catch the moment in the clip below:

Rob further explained he hadn’t considered that the CDC guidelines about Thanksgiving travel might apply to his (or any) trip as well. With each new word, he seemed to recognize the cognitive dissonance he was indulging in, occasionally offering a sheepish grin or some conciliatory body language to soften a questionable statement we both knew he just made.

Each time this happened, I did what I can only hope was smile politely and move on with my questions. I can’t be sure without checking the footage though, because inside, I had sort of gone away. Far, far away. Off to my own personal happy place, in a sincere effort to keep from smashing my poor, defenseless, expensive laptop on the ground as hard as I possibly could. The real-time shock that prompted this Herculean effort is what I recall most clearly.

Another of those moments came when Rob was explaining that flying to Arizona (then home again to Colorado, and later in the week, to South Carolina with another child for another tournament) was ultimately prompted by stricter guidelines concerning organized sports in his own region.

“Can there be a game this week, like can we play a game? The answer is no.” Rob said. “Because that would be too many bodies on the field at one time?” I asked. “Too many bodies on the field, correct,” Rob answered.

*Insert monkey throwing laptop GIF here.*

This is not to suggest Rob came across as flippant about the pandemic. Far from it. He described keeping to small groups of 10 or fewer for breakfast and taking other meals separately, wearing masks, and adding only one excursion to the weekend roster: an all-outdoor, self-guided campus tour of Grand Canyon University.

And his reasons for going in the first place, if taken by themselves, are wholesome and perfectly understandable: all his kids are soccer players, he’s a 100k-mile-a-year frequent flier who feels very comfortable traveling in general, and his son was up to play in a tournament that was definitely still happening and that college coaches would definitely still be scouting.

And this was precisely the part that was difficult to process. For as reasonable and analytic as Rob was in much of his thinking and many of his actions, he was just as quick to rationalize why he should be an exception to some of the biggest rules at a time when, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, none of us are.

The objective truth is this: the virus doesn’t care if we’re motivated to gather by our seasonal fondness for overcooked turkey, or the allure of a chance for our kids to be seen by a big-shot college sportsball guy (or gal).

The virus only cares if it has a chance to get inside a new host.

The virus is a far more effective, efficient and determined adversary than we’ve shown ourselves to be just yet. The more chances we give it to best us, the more hosts it gets, and the longer we suffer. Period. This is a tournament we are all currently losing.

When we elevate any activity as sacred (say, arguing politics with family over cranberry sauce, or playing a contact sport we enjoy), when we prioritize anything else over slowing the spread, we are aiding the enemy and making the herd more vulnerable. It really is that simple, and that inconvenient.

Desert Driver

Karen Adkison Dazalla is a realtor and devoted mom-of-one from Upland, California. Karen and her daughter, 10, crossed hundreds of miles of desert by car to attend the Desert Super Cup tournament last weekend.

Karen told me she saw most people following rules about masks and distancing throughout the event. “The tournament officials posted Covid guidelines on their website and had staff checking during games to ensure compliance. All participants and their families complied happily from what I observed.”

Asked how downtime was spent during their Desert Super Cup weekend, Karen explained, “Our team did not gather during downtime like we normally would. It was sad not to do that, but as a team our goal was to make sure we were all safe.”

As was the case with Mr. Blake, this is far from a flippant attitude toward the risks involved. But the priorities get fuzzy fast: “Since California is closed to tournaments, driving to Arizona is our only opportunity to play soccer.”

That sounds a lot like: I don’t like the rules where I live, so I’ll go somewhere they don’t have these rules, even if these rules are for my own good.

This might be fine logic if you’re 17 and looking for a Spring Break spot that’ll let you legally crack a beer, but it seems like a less-than-awesome approach for adults to use during a viral pandemic, especially when the rules being skirted exist solely to help END the viral pandemic… for everyone.

Asked to consider her decision in retrospect, Karen’s concern for safety was evident but her sense of security may be, if not false, perhaps a bit inflated. “I feel good about coming to the tournament,” she said. “The event staff was diligent about their own mask wearing and Covid protocols and were making sure we all adhered to them as well. Safety of everyone was a #1 priority and I think they did a very good job.”

Still, with the virus surging in Arizona, wouldn’t the safest thing have been to stay home? Event staff can’t prevent every momentary lapse in judgment, and parents can’t stop every maskless hotel room hangout or perfectly police every post-game group dinner dash. Factor in several thousand people, spread out and doing different activities at multiple locations, and the potential for these lapses increases exponentially, even if everyone is doing some version of “their best.”

And unfortunately, there’s no “lapse” required. Masks are not always worn during practice or games — even though, as Dr. Saskia Popescu advised the Phoenix City Council during their Dec. 2 meeting, there’s no reason the practice shouldn’t be required — and youth sports have been tied to numerous outbreaks. These are the facts.

And the CDC guidance is clear: full-contact game play between opposing teams increases the risk of spreading the coronavirus, by a lot.

From the CDC website:

The risk of COVID-19 spread increases in youth sports settings as follows:

Lowest Risk: Performing skill-building drills or conditioning at home, alone or with family members.

Increasing Risk: Team-based practice.

More Risk: Within-team competition.

Even More Risk: Full competition between teams from the same local geographic area.

Highest Risk: Full competition between teams from different geographic areas.

When you travel to a different state for non-essential activities that aren’t allowed in your own state even as the coronavirus spreads like wildfire, you’re not just skirting rules or advice intended for your own good. You’re playing fast and loose with rules intended to not only protect your health, but to let us ALL get back to living our lives sooner. Yes, even those of us living under governors who won’t help save our lives. You’re deciding for all of us that your exception is worth prolonging our shared misery.

There are many degrees of risk. There are difficult choices we all must make every day now, and yes, it’s exhausting. And no, none of this has been fair to anyone. But it’s not over, and it’s the worst it’s ever been. We have a duty to one another to get to a better place, and quickly.

Our Great Problem

The point of this story isn’t to lay blame on two individuals who made their judgment calls and chose to travel during the height of a pandemic, but to examine their experience and motivations as objectively as possible — which is, of course, all but impossible. But to do it anyway, and then to turn our gaze inward and make sure our choices are squaring up with our belief systems and personal senses of responsibility, would behoove us.

Government has not exactly been a model of responsibility over the past year. Is it asking too much of the individual to demand they be more steadfast in their efforts than the very leaders they pay to lead them? Wherever loopholes exist, should we not expect people to avail themselves the same as we see those in power do all the time?

The solution to our great problem would likely not see us continue to simply chastise opportunists and wring our hands about their choices, but rather take away the opportunities in the first place — with love, but firmly and with no compromise where we cannot afford to yield.

People will often push up against a set of limits exactly as far as they are allowed. It is a nearly universal part of human nature to challenge the “no.” This isn’t a new phenomenon and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. The good news is it doesn’t need to.

It’s a lot easier for government to close the loopholes than for each individual to learn to live within murky limits; limits that are hardly limits at all when they have such widely-negotiable boundary lines, constantly-shifting goalposts and seemingly zero consequences for overstepping.

Enough is enough.

**Just as this story was going live Wednesday night, the Phoenix City Council took a huge step toward reducing spread by voting 7–2 to shut down organized sports. This will help ensure what happened with the Desert Super Cup can’t happen again inside of city limits until the danger has passed.

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J. M. Waite

J. M. Waite

5 Followers

Reader, writer, sayer of things. Having covered everything from the prison industry to red carpets in Hollywood, lately I mostly groan on Twitter-and now, here.