By Patrice Nkrumah
During a meeting with high school athletic directors and sports administration officials from around the state, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson announced that the high school basketball season will begin on November 16, directly defying Governor J.B. Pritzker. The stunning announcement comes as the state is seeing some of its highest new COVID-19 infection rates since the pandemic began in March.
The IHSA has received a lot of pressure to move forward with games, after surrounding states conducted fall sports and Illinois did not.
Football coaches and some parents and players protested the IHSA’s decision to move those sports to the Spring of 2021. Up to this point, the IHSA has been working along with the Governor’s office and state public health officials to put together a framework where the games could safely be played. The first prep basketball games could be played on November 30.
The Crusader spoke with a sports administration official in Chicago who was on the call with Anderson. The person, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the IHSA even went as far as saying that fans would be allowed to attend the games.
The IHSA released the following statement about its decision.
“The Illinois High School Association Board of Directors made the decision today to continue with the IHSA basketball season as scheduled in 2020-21.
“In August, the Board slated basketball to take place from November to February based on the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) assigning a medium risk level to the sport. The IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) offered additional mitigations, such as masks during play and social distancing on benches, that the SMAC believed would allow basketball to be played safely.
“After diligent discussion, the Board has made the decision today to follow the recommendation of the IHSA SMAC as it relates to basketball. The Board remains considerate of rising COVID-19 cases in Illinois and understands the importance of adhering to safety guidelines for the good of all citizens. However, the Board has not been presented any causal evidence that rising COVID-19 cases make basketball more dangerous to play by the IDPH or any other health organization nationally or internationally. On the contrary, the IHSA has been looking to bordering states that have sponsored both medium risk and high-risk sports in the fall that have noted a low incident rate of COVID-19 spread.”
The IHSA claimed that rising mental health issues among Illinois students, a shrinking school year calendar and other factors also contributed to their decision.
Many say the IHSA is also looking at the bottom line as basketball is one of their largest revenue sports. The cancelation of last season’s boy’s tournament downstate had huge financial consequences for the IHSA and many high schools in the state.
Downstate Republican legislators have also been pressuring the IHSA to allow the students to play since many small towns in Illinois use high school sports as a major form of entertainment for its citizens.
“Illinois is a large and diverse state, and the IHSA membership is reflective of that. We understand that this decision will impact each high school and district differently. Some schools who remain in remote learning may not be able to start winter sports on time, and we feel for those in that situation. However, we have also learned that we cannot continue to look down the road to a season that may never come,” the IHSA statement continued.
Governor Pritzker was not happy with the IHSA going over his head and making a decision that defied public health experts.
The source who was on the call said the meeting was interrupted and Anderson was informed that Pritzker said any public school that defied his order would be liable to any injuries that happen and could have their state funding suspended.
“If there’s a difference of opinion, I prefer to err on the side of health and safety and I think that’s where we have intended for all of our guidance to fall,” said Pritzker in his official statement on the matter. “Schools would probably be taking on legal liability if they went ahead and moved beyond what the state has set as the mitigation standard.”
The IHSA is limiting competition to schools within the same region. It also says the decision on whether or not to play will lie with each school district.
“We’ve told school districts what the rules are, and I think they all know the consequences,” Pritzker said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot had not commented on the situation at Crusader deadline.
Chicago Public Schools are still trying to come up with a plan to allow in-person learning. Students have been doing remote learning since the spring. But with Chicago’s COVID cases rising, it would be hard to see a situation where CPS winter sports moved forward, even though boys’ basketball is a big revenue windfall for schools.
The IHSA also announced that for this year it will allow student-athletes to compete for both their school and a travel team program at the same time. This will particularly be important for volleyball players, whose season will begin in February for girls and May for boys. Those seasons coincide with USA Volleyball and AAU seasons. Wrestling, which is usually a winter sport, has been moved to the spring. It was previously announced that football, a fall sport, will be played in the spring as well.
One problem the IHSA and schools did not talk about is the sports officials.
Many work multiple sports and by changing the sports seasons’ schedules around, there could be a situation where there are not enough referees, judges or umpires to work the competitions.
There is already a nationwide shortage of sports officials and the pandemic has made it worse, according to the National Association of Sports Officials.
In a recent survey the company did, it found there to be a minimum of 10 percent of officials who said they would be unwilling to work during the pandemic.
With the average age of a youth sports official now in the 50s and many over 60, which is considered a higher at-risk group of contracting and dying from COVID-19, schools will have to become very creative in their scheduling.