Sports

IHSA Board votes to move forward with basketball season as planned, defying IDPH and Pritzker

Oswego East's William Wolfe (1) shoots the ball on the baseline against East Aurora's Jacques Kelly (4) during a Class 4A Oswego East Regional semifinal in Oswego March 4.
Oswego East's William Wolfe (1) shoots the ball on the baseline against East Aurora's Jacques Kelly (4) during a Class 4A Oswego East Regional semifinal in Oswego March 4.

The Illinois High School Association Board of Directors on Wednesday voted to move forward with the basketball season as scheduled, defying a decision announced on Tuesday by Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health that it was putting the high school basketball season on indefinite hold.

IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson met with statewide athletic directors on Wednesday afternoon and later discussed the decision at a press conference.

Anderson confirmed that he did not know that Pritzker was going to make a winter sports announcement on Tuesday. Pritzker and the IDPH on Tuesday announced that it was moving basketball from the "medium" to "higher" risk category for sports during the COVID-19 pandemic, and putting the season on an indefinite hold.

"Obviously things evolved very quickly over the last 24 hours," Anderson said. "The board was caught off guard by basketball going from medium to high risk and misunderstood that action."

The IHSA held a special board meeting Wednesday morning to act on winter sports, and voted to move forward with basketball in the winter season "despite the IDPH risk change yesterday," the IHSA announced in an email to athletic directors obtained by Shaw Media.

"The Illinois High School Association Board of Directors made the decision today to continue with the IHSA basketball season as scheduled in 2020-21," the Board of Directors said in a statement. "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."

As part of the modified sports plan adopted by the IHSA in late July, practices for the winter sports season are tentatively scheduled to begin on Nov. 16, with the season beginning Nov. 30 and running through Feb. 13.

Contests can begin on Nov. 30 within an Illinois COVID region, or within a conference. As a part of the mitigation plan, masks will be worn by all players, coaches and officials during play, with a maximum of 31 games. A key point is that "it will become a local school decision to determine if a school will allow their basketball teams to participate following the guidelines developed by the SMAC."

"This is a step forward to really say that as an association we think we do it safely and we want it for our students," Anderson said in the press conference. "At some point over the next month we will figure out if this is a legal issue for us as an association or is it for our schools and we'll have to pivot, as we have a number of times over the last several months."

Pritzker, asked about the IHSA's decision at his COVID-19 news briefing, said "What I would suggest is if there is a difference of opinion I prefer to fall on the side of health and safety."

"We’ve told school districts what the rules are and I think they all know," Pritzker said. "It’s unfortunate but [school districts] 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's stance indeed sets up a potential thorny legal situation for the organization, and for local school districts. Anderson was asked at the press conference if the Illinois State Board of Education could withhold funding from schools that defy the governor or the IDPH.

“I haven’t had time to think about that," Anderson said. "I guess that is a possibility. I would hope that wouldn’t be the case.”

Anderson did say that based on Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz's response, there could be legal ramifications "and I shared that with our board."

"There could be ramifications from the ISBE for our public schools and ramifications from the DCEO for private schools," Anderson said. "The legal question remains in the unknown I think. I didn't resource any of our legal counsel related to this. When we went into our meeting I was unsure with where the board would go with their decision-making."

The IHSA in July announced that it would defer to the IDPH, the Illinois State Board of Education and the governor's office on all of its return to play guidelines going forward. This came after the high school sports governing body was named a defendant in a lawsuit that aimed to roll back the IHSA's return to play guidelines.

"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 said in the statement. "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."

At its meeting the Board of Directors also voted to move wrestling to the summer season (April 19-June 26) and voted to approve low risk sports such as boys swimming and diving, cheerleading, dance, boys and girls bowling and girls gymnastics as planned. Mitigations for those sports will be posted later this week, and sent to coaches and ADs once available.

Anderson admitted that, related to basketball and Wednesday's decision, "I really don't know what is going to happen from now until Nov. 30."

"It’s a big deal to say to government officials and health departments that we are going to go a different direction from how you are advising," Anderson said. "I have no idea how that is going to play out for us."

On Wednesday evening, State Superintendent for Education Carmen Ayala released a statement urging school districts to follow guidance from the governor and IDPH.

"Defying the states public health guidance opens schools up to liability and other ramifications that may negatively impact school communities," Ayala said in the statement.

"Our Illinois schools and communities are safer when we work in support of public health standards. We are relying on superintendents and school leaders to make responsible choices to protect health and safety and to focus on bringing all of our students back to the classroom."

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