High school hoops and masks: State mandate easier said than done

  • A Notre Dame High School player looks to make a pass in a game against Prospect Thursday in Niles.

      A Notre Dame High School player looks to make a pass in a game against Prospect Thursday in Niles. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • A Hersey High School player defends against Glenbrook South High School in a game Wednesday in Glenview.

      A Hersey High School player defends against Glenbrook South High School in a game Wednesday in Glenview. John Starks | Staff Photographer

Updated 2/7/2021 8:03 AM

Hersey High School's Griffin Grinder took the ball strong to the basket. Glenbrook South's Brandon Ballarini and Rodell Davis Jr. met him just as strongly.

Whacked across the face, Grinder's protective mask dropped below his nose and mouth.


Masks slipped or were worn incorrectly numerous times in Wednesday's season opener, players' first since COVID-19 shut down high school basketball nearly as soon as it began in November.

It often happened without any contact at all, calling into question the effectiveness of state health guidelines for resumption of sports and safety of players. In 18 Daily Herald photos from that game between the Arlington Heights and Glenview schools and from Thursday's boys basketball matchup between Prospect High School in Mount Prospect and Notre Dame in Niles, all but one show one or more players with masks worn in a way that exposed noses and sometimes mouths.

The requirement itself for masks in high school basketball is somewhat controversial. A number of states, both red and blue, require them, but not all do. Iowa, for instance, allows high school basketball without masks. Wisconsin and Indiana do not.

And a study reported in The United States National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health last July concluded that "ventilation, cardiopulmonary exercise capacity and comfort are reduced by surgical masks and highly impaired by FFP2/N95 face masks in healthy individuals."

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But the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics in December both recommended masks for most indoor youth sports.

The academy of pediatrics noted that there are sports such as cheerleading, gymnastics and wrestling where exceptions to face coverings should be made because of choking hazards they could create, but basketball was not among the sports listed.

"Cloth face coverings have been shown to be well tolerated by the majority of individuals who wear them for exercise," the academy said.

Ultimately, Illinois health officials said the risk of spreading COVID-19 requires that if high school athletes are to play basketball here, as they did last week for the first time in a year, they need to wear masks.

"If the players are unable to wear masks then, yes, there would be increased risk of spreading COVID and safety would be reduced," said Dr. Jennifer Grant, an infectious disease physician with NorthShore University HealthSystem.


High school coaches and administrators say they are adamant about enforcing mask-wearing and other COVID mitigations to ward against the threat of another sports shutdown. Players say they are committed, too, but that keeping a mask secure can be difficult on the court.

"It's definitely hard, when you're running and trying to play defense and communicate," said junior guard Jason Huber from Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville.

The Restore Illinois plan's Sports Safety Guidance on masks in prep sports is brief:

"Wearing face coverings or masks with coverage of nose and mouth, including during competition, reduces the transmission of disease and, in accordance with the communicable disease code, all participants who can medically tolerate a face covering must wear a face covering when unable to maintain at least a 6-foot social distance."

Asked about slipping masks during high school play, Don Bolger of the Cook County Department of Public Health said, "A face mask should fit properly so it is not constantly being touched and adjusted."

Most of the Illinois High School Association guidance pertains to personnel, even spectators, who refuse to wear masks. Should repeated reminders to a player to wear the mask properly go unheeded, a referee may send the player to the bench for a substitute, similar to rules for untucked shirts or illegal undergarments.

A player in Thursday's boys basketball game between Prospect and Notre Dame played much of the first half with his mask covering only his mouth, said Dick Quagliano, who covered the game for the Daily Herald. The player wore it properly in the second half.

"As sports get comfortable with mitigations and restriction, there's going to be an adjustment period, and people will need to work through that over the upcoming weeks," said Dennis Piron, Batavia High School assistant athletic director. Piron, also Batavia's head football and boys track coach, is on the IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.

Arlington Heights resident Ted Lepucki, chairman of the Athletic Officials Association, which covers four sports including basketball in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and Will counties, said officials will issue reminders to players.

"I think we're all going to learn, and this will be an evolution for everybody," he said.

Grant said the Centers for Disease Control does not recommend a specific type of mask. She suggests a well-fitting cloth mask with two or more breathable layers and adjustable straps. She advises bringing an extra mask should one get wet or the straps loosen.

"Masks definitely need to be worn over the nose for full effectiveness," Grant said. "As people talk or exercise, the mask can slide down and should be readjusted -- but masks definitely shouldn't be just worn over the mouth as a halfway measure. Making sure the mask is well fitting with a nose wire and secure ear loops or ties can help."

The Illinois Department of Public Health likewise listed no specific recommendations regarding masks for athletes. An email from the IDPH said masks should cover the nose and mouth and be secure under the chin, fitting snugly to the side of the face. It also advises wearing a mask with two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric.

The important thing is for athletes to wear them, said Stacey Lambert, the IHSA assistant executive director responsible for sports medicine.

"The education starts with the coach to make sure players are wearing their masks the way they're supposed to be," Lambert said. She acknowledged that due to basketball's physicality, there will be some slippage "no matter what."

Glenbrook South coach Phil Ralston, who requires his players to bring backup masks, reminded a player only once on Wednesday -- he took a bit too long to put his mask on after a water break on the sideline.

"If we see one of our kids not wearing a mask, they're going to come out, because we're not going to jeopardize this," Ralston said.

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