Mark Bacys was treating last Wednesday’s deluge of IHSA news as the latest reason to head back to the drawing board during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Until we have a better, clearer picture,” the Danville athletic director said Thursday morning, “my plan is I’m going to come up with three or four different proposals trying to anticipate what each outcome might look like.”
He and other ADs statewide may need fifth and sixth proposals after the latest verbal barrages were lobbed Thursday in the ongoing dispute between Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the IHSA.
During his Thursday afternoon press conference, Pritzker doubled down on a desired postponement of basketball season, saying “we’ve asked that they be moved into the spring.”
“They,” in this case, is winter sports deemed higher-risk by the Illinois Department of Public Health during the pandemic. On Tuesday, basketball joined wrestling in that category after spending three months as a medium-risk sport.
The IHSA Board of Directors responded Wednesday afternoon by breaking from Pritzker and voting to allow the basketball season to begin in November, while also pushing wrestling to an April start time. The IHSA, in making its Wednesday announcement, left it up to each individual school district whether or not their basketball players will compete while following IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee guidelines.
Pritzker didn’t settle for the IHSA board’s outcome.
“We’re not shutting (sports) down,” Pritzker said Thursday. “What we’re trying to do is get to a point where positivity levels are much lower, where the number of cases in our state are much lower and, where I hope and pray, we will have much better treatments and vaccines available.
“It’s the high-risk sports where we’ve asked that there be limitations for the time being.”
In a miniature second form of defiance, the IHSA followed through later Thursday afternoon with the release of its winter sports safety considerations, including ones for basketball.
IHSA executive director Craig Anderson took his own stand Thursday via comments to the Peoria Journal Star.
“Nothing has changed. We’re still playing,” Anderson said. “We aren’t playing basketball in the spring or summer. We’ve approved basketball to be played in the winter, and that’s what we are moving ahead with.”
But Pritzker’s camp gained momentum as afternoon turned to evening, when Chicago Public Schools officials informed their constituents that basketball was postponed until further notice.
Legal questions arise
That red tape comes in the form of opposition to the IHSA’s stance from Pritzker, the IDPH and the Illinois State Board of Education.
Pritzker has said schools “would probably be taking on legal liability if they went ahead and moved beyond” IDPH safety guidelines for basketball, which differ from those written up by the IHSA’s sports medicine group. State superintendent of education Dr. Carmen I. Ayala agrees with Pritzker, writing in a letter on Wednesday evening that defying the state’s guidance “may negatively impact school communities.”
Steve Beckett, University of Illinois College of Law director emeritus of trial advocacy, told The News-Gazette on Thursday evening that a civil lawsuit is the sort of litigation he could see transpiring if schools choose to play basketball.
“One of the kids comes down with COVID-19 and, God forbid, the kid passes away. Now the parents sue somebody, sue the high school claiming the high school is negligent,” Beckett said, “because it didn’t follow the governor’s command, public health’s command.
“I don’t foresee a lawsuit between the IHSA and the governor, between a school and the IHSA or a school and the governor. That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Beckett said he also can’t see Pritzker saying “because you played basketball we’re going to cut your allocation (of state funding) by 10 percent. That just isn’t going to happen.”
Beckett added that Pritzker is not able to simply tell a school or group of schools that they’re unable to play basketball, despite Pritzker’s recent comments potentially coming off as such.
“Each school is an autonomous entity,” Beckett said. “St. Joe-Ogden could say, ‘This is what the governor says and we must follow that.’ That’d be a school board decision.”
Champaign-Urbana Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde, during a Thursday press conference about region pandemic mitigations, expressed hope that school boards, dioceses and the like will choose to keep kids out of competitive basketball for the time being.
“I am very frustrated by that (IHSA) decision,” Pryde said. “It’s ridiculous because everybody keeps saying to me, ‘Well, what about college and professional?’ Well, college and professional is a lot different because they, first of all, are not going back into their homes or their families or going back into the schools. For the most part, they’re isolated. They’re in the sort of bubbles-type situation. They can’t even be compared.
“So, you know, I think that IHSA’s decision is completely irresponsible. But it goes along with a lot of the other attitudes that we’re seeing out there, unfortunately.”
Plenty of restrictions
Athletic directors across the state have scheduled basketball games in preparation for some sort of season. They started doing so well before the back-and-forth exchanges between the IHSA and Pritzker this week.
Whether athletes get to participate in them or not is a much more complicated matter.
Those who do, as happened to those involved in the IHSA’s 2020 fall sports campaign, will face strict pandemic safety guidance.
The IHSA sports medicine group’s basketball considerations, published Thursday, include a variety of rules that teams must abide by:
— All individuals in a gymnasium must wear masks, including active and on-bench players, coaches and officials;
— No more than 50 people are permitted at a game;
— Distancing of 6 feet is required between all individuals not playing on the court, including those on the bench;
— Two game balls are recommended for a game, and the balls should be sanitized and switched during full timeouts and between quarters. If only one ball is available, it should be sanitized during full timeouts and between quarters;
— A media timeout must be taken under the 5-minute mark of each quarter, at the first dead ball, to allow players a chance to catch their breath (because they are masked);
— The visiting team should be awarded the first possession of a game to eliminate the jump ball, while overtime periods or games on neutral sites should use a coin toss to determine first possession.
Multi-team events also are allowed under the considerations, though stringent cleaning and gathering restrictions are placed upon them. Many holiday tournaments, both locally and elsewhere in the state, already have been canceled for this school year.
The final word — for now
Waller said he would be comfortable with his athletes at Urbana playing basketball should it be allowed.
“Our coaches do an outstanding job maintaining the safety of our players,” Waller said. “We definitely feel we’re in a position, if we’re given the green light, to host and to travel.”
Bacys and Allen both said many issues need to be ironed out before they take a firm stance on the matter.
Each long-time high school coach and high school administrator also expressed concern for athletes should they be held off the court and frustration about another hurdle facing teenagers who have no true say in whether they’ll compete or not.
“The kids are in the middle, and we’re trying to do what’s right,” Bacys said. “We don’t know what the ramifications are from the state if we go ahead and play. ... It almost feels like there’s no decision been made. Two decisions have been made, but really no decision’s been made.”
“We need to get things in order,” Allen added. “We’re messing with (athletes’) minds here. One day they’re playing, the next day they aren’t. ... We need to take better charge and do a better job for our kids than this.”
Colin Likas is the preps coordinator at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.