If you are a fan of high school basketball, the perspective is that the Illinois High School Association on Wednesday advocated for the students it represents.
A skeptic’s reaction might read something along the lines of the IHSA raising a giant blinking neon middle finger at the Governor’s Office and the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Regardless, the news that the IHSA Board of Directors opted to disregard Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Tuesday ruling to put basketball on hold could be described in one word.
Making a dramatic pivot from the news of 24 hours earlier that appeared to put arguably its marquee sport in peril because of COVID-19 concerns, the IHSA instead elected to start practice on planned on Nov. 16 and play games as soon as Nov. 30.
“Without basketball in the winter, we would have a big hole in the season with limited activities for the kids,” said IHSA executive director Craig Anderson during a teleconference. “The board really felt we needed to give this a try for our students.”
The IHSA’s Sport Medicine Advisory Committee installed some mitigations aimed at making it safer. Players, coaches and officials all must wear masks during games. Benches will be socially distanced, probably stretching into the first few rows of seats.
Only 50 people will be allowed in the gym, which includes players and coaches and will make it unlikely fans can attend games. And a media timeout will be taken around the halfway point of each quarter in order to allow players and officials a chance to catch their breath.
The decision whether to play or sit out will ultimately be up to local schools and their board members. Pritzker said that schools could face “legal liability” if they choose to contravene his and the IDPH’s wishes. That could include the loss of funding.
Asked about those comments, Anderson admitted that legal questions remain, but that he and the board simply felt they needed to press ahead with a basketball season if at all possible.
“We had two months of fall contact days within guidelines provided by IDPH,” Anderson said. “I don’t know if anyone could point to circumstances where cases were spiking because of that activity.
“A number of board members were hearing from parents in the areas they represent that this was hurting the kids. I get that we need to be concerned with COVID, but if there is a place we need to be competing, it’s in the schools where we can follow our guidelines.”
Wednesday’s board meeting was scheduled after its monthly meeting on the 19th, when it announced its plan to conduct winter sports. But Pritzker and IDPH weighed in on Tuesday, declaring that basketball was a high-risk sport after being in the medium risk category since July.
When queried if the timing of Pritzker’s comments relative to the special board meeting blindsided him, Anderson initially said yes before saying that word was extreme. But he conceded the board was caught off-guard.
“Things evolved quickly over the last 24-48 hours,” Anderson said. “We tried to be good partners with IDPH and the Governor’s Office … but we need to do something that’s student-centered and do it where they can compete. That’s where the board landed on its belief that this is the time.”
As expected, many of the same coaches who took to social media Tuesday to express their frustrations came back 24 hours later to salute the IHSA for its bold action.
“Good job IHSA for having the courage to stand up for what’s right,” West Frankfort girls basketball coach Tracy Steed said on Facebook.
Anderson said that it was unlikely that the IHSA would play a state tournament in February at State Farm Center in Champaign, citing the ongoing limitations with crowds. Some sort of State Series will be played. Details of that could be divulged following the next scheduled board meeting in mid-November.
The board also elected to move wrestling from the winter to the summer, a move that sport’s coaches hoped would be made. It also announced plans to move ahead with low-risk activities like bowling, boys swimming, cheerleading and dance.