The head of the Illinois High School Association says political pressure may have helped prompt state public health officials and the Pritzker administration to allow basketball and other high-risk sports to resume.
The Bloomington-based IHSA approved a schedule on Wednesday to enable all sports to resume, after the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) shifted to allow high-risk sports to resume in areas where COVID-19 mitigations were relaxed.
IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said he urged schools to contact their state legislators “to push the conversation” for weeks when it appeared the state wasn't going to budge.
Anderson noted many parents and others voiced their anger on social media, and some student-athletes transferred to schools in neighboring states, before the state allowed a return to play.
“Part of me thinks it was those things that created a groundswell of interest, call it pressure or whatever, to get it out there that students need this,” Anderson said.
Gov. JB Pritzker has said he has sought to protect athletes and their families from COVID-19 and that he has followed guidance from public health officials.
Following the Jan. 22 announcement that Illinois would allow basketball to resume in regions that reach Phase 4 mitigations, Pritzker said the state allowed a return to play based on improving health metrics.
“Things have changed as a result of the great work people have done across the state, following the mitigations, and so there are many more playing sports than there were yesterday,” Pritzker said.
Last week, IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike indicated she has been inundated with requests to relax guidelines for sports.
“Over the past seven months, I have received countless emails, letters, phone calls from students, from parents, from coaches and many others about youth sports,” Ezike said. “There have been organized protests about the issue.
“I hear and I see and I feel the passion around youth sports.”
Ezike added regions that see COVID spikes or increased hospitalizations could still see stronger mitigations that could lead to the suspension of play.
Anderson said he’s grateful IDPH provided a pathway for schools to resume high-risk sports, but noted getting proper guidance from the state has at times been challenging.
“We had been asking since the early fall, could we know and be able to communicate with our schools what metric we are looking for, where do we have to get to,” he said.
Anderson said the IHSA finds out information when the general public does and has been given little notice about announcements coming from the governor’s office, adding the lines of communication have improved. He said the IHSA is forwarding “numerous” questions coming from member schools to ensure they are following state protocols.
“It’s somewhat delayed. It’s not as quick as you would hope for a return of some of the answers, but at least there’s acknowledgement of these questions and that they are working on getting a response back to us,” Anderson said.
Anderson said enforcing COVID-19 protocols and making decisions regarding testing and isolating of student-athletes and coaches will be left to the schools and local public health officials.
While he respects the concerns many have raised about playing sports amid a pandemic that has claimed more than 420,000 lives nationally, Anderson thinks it can be done safely and that the benefits outweigh the risks.
“While their could be spread of infection, we think providing students opportunities and the guidance from their coaches and school administrators to be safe will lend itself to kids being safer and not being in social activities away from sport, or when they had more free time,” he said.
While Illinois high schools get to return to play, they could face another financial hit. Anderson said 75% of the IHSA’s revenue comes from state series tournaments and all of them have been canceled, except those that can be done virtually.
Anderson said the association has cut expenses, but it lay also needs to raise money through memberships or activity fees to schools.
“It’s been challenging and we really need things to head in a direction where we can have spectators at our state series events and are likely going to have to lean on our member (schools) a little bit to help through this challenging time,” Anderson said.
He said state finals for the spring sports are also unlikely, or would have greatly reduced attendance, adding that could make them too costly to run.
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