CHICAGO (CBS) — The Illinois High School Association on Wednesday said it is going to allow high school basketball practices to begin as scheduled in mid-November – in defiance of Gov. JB Pritzker’s office after he moved the sport to the high-risk category when it comes to COVID-19 this week.
The ruling took everyone by surprise including, it seems, Gov. Pritzker himself. Pritzker has warned that there could be consequences for the decision, and Illinois Supt. of Education Carmen Ayala is taking his side.
The IHSA Board of Directors held a special meeting on Wednesday, at which they decided to follow the guidance of the IHSA Sport Medicine Advisory Committee and allow boys’ and girls’ basketball to begin practice on Monday, Nov. 16, as previously planned.
This is in conflict with the new guidance issued by the Governor’s office Tuesday, which moved basketball from medium risk to high risk.
The new guidance was developed by the Department of Public Health and public health experts, and reflects the high risk of indoor contact sports. It also reflects new research related to COVID-19 in sports, sports-related outbreaks in other states, and the second surge of the pandemic pummeling the state.
“We can’t ignore what is happening around us – because without action, this could look worse than anything we saw in the spring.” Pritzker said in a news release Tuesday. “It’s with that in mind that today, my administration is releasing our updated guidance for youth and adult recreational sports in Illinois ahead of the winter season.”
The updated guidance moves basketball to high risk due to the risks brought about by contact between players and by indoor play. In being placed in the high-risk category, basketball may only be played at level 1, with no-contact practices and training being all that is allowed.
But the IHSA has decided that despite that guidance, practices will be going ahead anyway.
The organization’s board said contests can begin Nov. 30 within an Illinois COVID region or within a conference. Masks will be required for all players, coaches, and officials, and teams will follow limitations that will allow a maximum of 31 games.
Local schools will decide for themselves if their basketball teams can play, the IHSA said.
The IHSA board said in a statement:
“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.
“The high school basketball season was potentially put on hold on October 27, when Governor 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.
“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.”
At the daily COVID-19 news briefing Wednesday, Gov. Pritzker was asked his thoughts about the IHSA’s decision.
“What we’re listening to is the guidance that’s given by national organizations, the guidance that’s given by physicians, particularly those that treat children, and of course the experts in sports medicine,” the governor said, “and so what I would suggest is that 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.”
Pritzker was asked specifically if he’ll try to stop the IHSA from going forward with its plan.
“We’ve told school districts what the rules are, and I think they all know. So, IHSA may have their views of it, but school districts know what the rules are, and I think that it’s unfortunate, but they would probably be taking on legal liability if they went ahead and moved beyond what the state has set as the mitigation standard,” he said.
When the IHSA was asked Wednesday about those potential legal ramifications from the state, the executive director said they’re still figuring that out.
When asked how confident they are that their guidelines will keep everyone – including players – safe, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said: “It’s a big deal to say to government officials or the Department of Public Health that you know, we’re going to go in a different direction than how you’re advising, and so, I have no idea how that’s going to play out for us. I remain hopeful.”
CBS 2’s Marissa Parra spoke with players before the ruling came out. They said the high school senior basketball players are struggling the most.
This was the year not just to get the big championship win they have been dreaming of, but the year for college prospects – especially when it comes to the scholarships that so many players in and around the city rely on.
“Especially for the seniors that don’t even have college looks yet who were depending on their senior year, it’s like their exposure is not there,” said Whitney M. Young Magnet High School senior basketball player Jaehshon Thomas.
Aneesah Morrow, a senior at Neal F. Simeon Career Academy, spoke to CBS 2 after the decision was made. She saw the IHSA’s plan to move forward as a glimmer of light.
After helping the girls’ team bring home the city and state basketball title last year, her final season is uncertain.
“I was worried at first. Like, I was kind of upset, because I’m like, dang, my senior year,” Morrow told CBS 2’s Jermont Terry.
Morrow wanted the chance to bring home another championship.
“I’m really looking forward to a two-peat,” she said.
“Of course, they want to defend it,” said Simeon Head Girls’ Basketball Coach Jonathan Davenport.
But COVID-19 left Davenport’s team with no possibility of hitting the court this fall – until the IHSA’s decision on Wednesday.
“I’m excited if it sticks,” Davenport said.
While Davenport supports the move, he knows safety still remains a top priority.
“You worry about that you can’t help but to worry about that piece – the virus is real,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Illinois State Superintendent of Education has already sided with the governor. And that means the season for Morrow to showcase her skills still is not definite just yet.
“Yes athletic scholarship is key for me, and I’m kind of worried just hearing about things that happening on the news,” she said.
The IHSA reiterated that they will leave the issue to local school districts, and they expect those decisions to be made in tandem with local health departments.
On Wednesday night, many districts were talking – and there appeared to be more support for the IHSA’s plan downstate, with a few suburban districts also leaning that way. There was no word late Wednesday on how the Chicago Public Schools will decide.
The IHSA board on Wednesday did agree to move the sport of wrestling from the winter season to the summer season, which runs from April 19 to June 26 of next year.
CBS 2’s Jermont Terry and Marissa Parra contributed to this report.
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