IHSA says basketball season will go on as expected
Defying an order issued on Tuesday by Gov J.B. Pritzker that the basketball season be put on hold due to growing concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, the Illinois High School Association's board of directors Wednesday said the season will go on as scheduled.
"The Illinois High School Association board of directors made the decision today to continue with the IHSA basketball season as scheduled in 2020-21," an emailed statement from the IHSA to state athletic directors said. The board also voted to move wrestling to the summer season (April 19-June 26).
"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.
"The high school basketball season was potentially put on hold on October 27, when Gov. Pritzker announced that IDPH had changed basketball's risk level from medium risk to high risk. 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 understand 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 who have sponsored both medium risk and high risk sports in the fall that have noted a low incident rate of COVID-19 spread.
"Instead, we will require all IHSA basketball teams to adhere to those SMAC mitigations, and allow local school officials to make decisions related to participation.
That was music to the ears of Gabi Melby, a four-year starter at Naperville Central, who will play next year at Tennessee-Martin.
"It's amazing. We are so happy about it," she said. "We've had no problems throughout our contact days so we are really hoping that our district allows us to play and have a somewhat normal season. This is the best news that we've heard."
In response to the decision, Pritzker said at his daily news conference that he and the IDPH listen to national health experts, organizations and physicians. "We prefer to err on the side of health and safety," he said.
In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz told him there could be ramifications from the Illinois State Board of Education if the IHSA goes forward against the guidance from the IDPH.
"The legal question remains unknown," said Anderson, adding each local district is going to have to make the decision about going forward with basketball.
Carmen I. Ayala, the state superintendent of education, also said, in a letter to school district superintendents, that they could face liability and "other ramifications that could negatively impact school communities" and should follow health guidance.
"We recognize the value of sports in students' lives and share your hope that students can return safely to play this school year," the letter reads. "However, at this moment, we urge you to prioritize health and safety, and to returning the 1.76 milion students currently learning remotely to the classroom."
Anderson was asked about the possibility of the governor cutting state funding to schools that play.
"I guess that's a possibility and local school boards will have to weigh and factor that in if that's something they are going to bring as a ramification of a school board making a decision to go forward with sports and activities," Anderson said. "I would hope that wouldn't be the case."
Anderson said no more than 50 people will be allowed in a gym, which means games will be played without spectators. Everyone in the gym, including players, will be wearing masks. An extra timeout, like a TV timeout during state games, will be taken every quarter to give players and officials a chance to catch their breath.
"This is a step forward as an association that we think we can do it safely and we want it for our students," Anderson said. "Things evolved very quickly over the last 24 to 48 hours. I think the board was caught off guard with basketball going from medium to high risk.
"If there's a place our kids should be competing it's within our schools where safety guidelines put forth will be followed and students can reap all the benefits of participation. We really need to do something that is student-centered. And in their opinion we can do it safely."
Practice starts Nov. 16 and games are scheduled to begin Nov. 30.
"I really don't know what's going to happen now until Nov. 30," Anderson said. "To me it's a really big deal to say to government officials that we are going to go a different direction on how you are advising. I have no idea on how that is going to play out for us. I remain hopeful the decision of our board will play out successfully for our kids."
St. Charles East boys coach Patrick Woods sees obstacles ahead.
"I'm not buying into it yet," Woods said. "Obviously I'd love for a season and I want the season to happen and I agree the kids should be playing and I feel there's enough mitigations in place to make it a safe play. But I just see some roadblocks ahead with this movement even though I fully support it. I believe the governor will cut funding to schools who defy his orders. I think that's the biggest game-stopper right there. That's what I foresee happening but I am still going to be hopeful a season happens at some point."
Woods said he did not share the news with his players.
"It's constantly changing and I don't want to put them in a spot to get their hopes up," Woods said. "It's been such a seesaw ride since March. We have had so many things change and I think that has a negative impact on kids. If they are following along good for them and if not I'm fine with that as well."
Burlington Central girls coach Collin Kalamatas was pleasantly surprised.
"Certainly shock," Kalamatas said of his reaction. "I was anticipating some kind of timeline today, like a tentative timeline was a best-case scenario. Worst-case scenario I was thinking they were going to give us the old runaround and check back in the spring. Very pleasantly surprised."
During contact days Tuesday a few of the Burlington Central players learned that the IDPH had moved basketball from a medium to high-risk sport, putting the season in peril. That included senior Elana Wells, a four-year starter.
"I happened to be with the girls yesterday when we found out and I didn't tell them but Elana found out from her phone during a mask break," Kalamatas said. "You could just see the look all over her face that her senior year was pretty much getting thrown in the toilet. Just thinking about girls like her and (senior guard) Avery (Anderson) and other girls in the area who have an opportunity for a senior season, I'm excited."
The IHSA statement continued: "Mounting challenges, from increased mental health issues among our students to a shrinking calendar that limits our ability to move sport seasons this school year, were instrumental in this decision to move forward with basketball as scheduled. We see our students regularly leaving the state to play sports, or covertly continuing to play locally. Students can be better protected in the high school setting, and the Board remains steadfast that playing under IHSA rules and SMAC mitigation is the safest way to conduct athletics at this juncture.
"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.
"Contact days for our teams this fall have been an incredible boon to our students' well-being. We fear for the mental health of students who attempt to traverse a long winter with no athletic outlet available. So much about dealing with this virus has been learned in the past eight months, and this decision will grant the membership the opportunity to apply that knowledge during their basketball season.
"Each member of the IHSA Board volunteered for this position because they are passionate about high school sports and activities, and the positive impact they have on our students' physical and mental health."
• Marni Pyke contributed to this report.