If you live in Illinois and want to watch high school basketball this winter, at least at the season’s start, you’d better drive to Indiana, Kentucky or Missouri.
In its latest defeat at the hands of COVID-19 and the Governor’s Office, the Illinois High School Association learned Tuesday that the Department of Public Health moved basketball and wrestling to the “high risk” category under its current guidelines.
Or as Gov. J.B. Pritzker put it during his daily coronavirus briefing, the season is ”on hold.” Which means that all the work athletic directors did to put together a revised schedule under the amended IHSA sports calendar has been rendered useless.
“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. “Life in a pandemic is hard, and it’s hard for all of our kids, whether or not they play sports. That doesn’t make it any easier – but we really are all in this together.”
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Basketball was considered a “medium risk” activity prior to Tuesday. Teams were allowed to practice but not to play games. In the high risk category, all teams can do are hold drills. They can’t run contact practices or play games.
The announcement by Pritzker comes about 24 hours before the IHSA was to release its plans for winter sports. Some anticipated that it would tell its schools to go ahead with basketball, perhaps requiring players to wear masks while on the floor.
IHSA executive director Craig Anderson found out Pritzker’s intentions about 15 minutes before the news came down.
“In our meeting with IDPH on Friday,” Anderson said, “we felt that we presented multiple options that would allow basketball to be conducted safely by IHSA schools this winter, many of which are being utilized in neighboring states that plan to play high school basketball.”
Basketball was the first sport to feel the effects of the pandemic that largely shut down the sports world in mid-March. Less than 24 hours before the Class 1A/2A boys basketball tournament, the IHSA was forced to cancel the event after all major professional sports and the NCAA came to a standstill.
From there, the IHSA scuttled spring sports in late April after several attempts to get it off the ground. It hoped to conduct fall sports as scheduled, but mere hours before it planned to reveal its athletic calendar on July 29, Pritzker said that football and volleyball were too risky to be played.
At that point, the IHSA had ceded decision-making control to IDPH and the Governor’s Office, feeling it wouldn’t be allowed to make its own choices. After Pritzker made his announcement, the IHSA opted to move those sports and boys soccer to the spring as part of a revamped athletic year.
The IHSA is still holding a special Board of Directors meeting on Wednesday. Pritzker’s decision is seen by some as undermining the IHSA, although science and data support his theory that COVID-19 is on the rise again. Seven of the state’s 11 COVID regions are undergoing mitigations, including Southern Illinois.
Several coaches took to social media to criticize the timing of Pritzker’s announcement. Herrin boys basketball coach Sayler Shurtz called the news a “gut punch.” West Frankfort girls basketball coach Tracy Steed said she was “beyond upset.”
The Illinois Basketball Coaches Association took to Twitter on Tuesday night to release a statement.
“Very disappointed to learn of today’s decision,” the statement said. “We believe we deserve an opportunity to work with our young people in this safe and highly-monitored way.”
Pritzker said his decision isn’t politically motivated, but instead driven by the numbers. Harrisburg girls basketball coach Jake Stewart didn’t sound like a believer on Twitter.
“Science shows up the day before an IHSA meeting every single time,” he said.
Tuesday's announcement also holds up the start of wrestling season. Bowling is unlikely to be affected as it's considered a low-risk sport.