Whether using her laptop inside her Dassel, Minn., home or her voice outside the governor's residence in St. Paul, football-mom-turned-activist Dawn Gillman has emerged as the face of a growing movement eager to restore high school athletes' seasons.
That movement has blossomed though social media as Let Them Play Minnesota, a website and robust Facebook group modeled on efforts used in other states. The group's controversial message is unwavering: Government agencies and state officials should reconsider coronavirus guidelines and allow high school and youth sports to proceed.
Gillman, whose sons, Eli and Monte, play football for Dassel-Cokato, helped create Let Them Play Minnesota in September, aiming to restore high school football and volleyball seasons that originally had been delayed until March 2021. It quickly became an outlet for concerned parents, supportive coaches, fans and athletes to air frustrations and deliver a unified voice in support of youth sports.
More than 23,000 people have joined the Facebook group, with Gillman and a group of five sports moms serving as administrators posting updates.
After the football and volleyball seasons were started in late September, Let Them Play Minnesota turned its focus to allowing more fans at fall sports, and later, restoring state tournaments. Group members spoke up again in November when Gov. Tim Walz enacted a four-week pause and delayed the start of the winter sports season. All along, they feared for the mental health of kids who they felt were being unfairly hurt despite being less susceptible to the virus.
Let Them Play Minnesota, a nonprofit organization, draws financial support from businesses and donations from families to fund its message through demonstrations, petitions and lawsuits.
"We have remained a grassroots movement with the intention to support forward progress for opening of youth sports and activities," Gillman said. "We also support schools and businesses being opened safely. Our hope is to have a collective voice to support the science and data. Why harm our kids when shutting down sports is detrimental to the mental and physical well-being of the next generation?"
Promoting those concerns in a respectful manner is a priority for Gillman, a former athlete for Dassel-Cokato. Her profile has helped her to speak with members of Gov. Walz's team as well as Minnesota State High School League Executive Director Erich Martens.
Gillman, 47, said she believes COVID-19 is real; the virus made its way through her household this fall. She said she wears a mask when required. And she supports protecting the vulnerable from COVID-19 while also believing data support reopening schools and permitting sports — with restrictions.
Her views and those of Let Them Play Minnesota generate concern from public health officials and others who see youth sports as contributing to community spread of the virus.
Ryan Demmer, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health, said, "Kids most definitely get infected, and they most definitely transmit. And that's why having them out in these types of activities really helps to link up the communities and drive community transmission. I really believe that having kids in sports and school in the fall was not the only reason we are really out of control right now, but it is a contributing factor."
Gillman and her sons flew to Florida this week for Eli and Monte to showcase themselves as college football prospects in an event called "The Show" at IMG Academy in Bradenton.
Word reached her Monday of the Minnesota Department of Health's latest guidelines for winter sports, which include athletes wearing masks throughout practices and competitions. Gillman was flabbergasted.
"The Minnesota Department of Health just threw this out there with no data to support it," Gillman said.
As of Monday, 65% of the 5,160 deaths from COVID-19 in Minnesota have occurred in long-term care communities, state records show. In the 15- to 19-year-old age group, zero deaths have been reported from 31,957 cases. But no amount of data she cites has made Gillman immune to criticism.
"I've lost a lot of friendships and relationships because I may view things a little differently," Gillman said. "It's been intense. I've had parents say, 'Dawn, how dare you? My child is fine with staying home as long as we can spare another life.' But we can't know that we are the people that are responsible for other people's lives, other than our own. And that's not to sound callous because I have wrestled with this."
Gillman said her husband and their three children who were adopted all had COVID-19 this fall. They felt minor symptoms but recovered. She knows other families have not been so fortunate. And she empathizes with those who fear for their children.
Eli and Monte Gillman are young Black men more concerned about their surroundings following the death in May of George Floyd.
"Eli said something that made me sad and fearful when he said, 'This is going to make it harder for me being Black when I get pulled over,' " Gillman said. "And he gets worried about Monte because he could see Monte running when he gets scared instead of listening."
Eli, a junior, was named all-area football player of the year by the Herald Journal, while Monte showed promise as a ninth-grader on the Dassel-Cokato varsity team. Dawn Gillman doesn't want local pandemic-related restrictions to hamper the high school experience or the college athletics potential of her sons or any other high school student-athlete.
Eli said that initially, his mother's place in the public eye felt a little embarrassing. His feelings changed when he saw what he believed was Let Them Play Minnesota fostering real change.
"I like how she isn't aggressively attacking anyone, she is just trying to find a solution," Eli said. "My friends will say, 'Your mom is going to be the governor.'"
Just how much Let Them Play Minnesota has moved the needle is unclear. Walz has rarely if ever mentioned the group publicly. Martens would not comment for this story. But Gillman and her group plan to keep a dialogue going with both men and their teams whenever possible.
"I think we've found such success with Let Them Play because of our objective to find solutions for getting families and kids back into activities while still having kindness and respect for one another," Gillman said.
That doesn't change her side's desires to see kids return to school and sports despite the objections of government agencies.
A little more than one week ago, a federal judge denied a legal challenge by Let Them Play Minnesota, which claimed its inability to gather on the State Capitol grounds for a protest of Gov. Walz's pause on youth sports violated its First Amendment rights.
Demmer, the U epidemiologist who is also a sports parent, said relief is in sight. He hopes groups such as Let Them Play Minnesota keep their demands reasonable.
"Right now, the context is that there is real hope for vaccines and for kids to hopefully be doing normal things within months," Demmer said. "I would hope that changes a little bit the perspective of people who are champing at the bit and saying that we need to get back to normal tomorrow."