The boys and girls high school basketball seasons are on in Illinois, opening the door for other high contact sports to play this year — as well as potential lawsuits.
In a major reversal, the Illinois High School Association announced on Wednesday that basketball games could be played this winter. This directly contradicts guidance issued by the Illinois Department of Public Health a day earlier that had put a halt to basketball play this winter. IDPH elevated basketball to a high risk level sport, saying game play had a higher risk of spreading COVID-19 because of the indoor play and close contact of players.
Despite that guidance, the IHSA, which oversees high school sports in Illinois, said basketball could be played safely. The IHSA board said students can start practicing Nov. 16 and begin playing games starting on Nov. 30.
“In terms of the safety, the guidelines put together by our sports medicine advisory committee really lend themselves to making competition safe for students,” said Craig Anderson, executive director of IHSA. “I think our board reached the point to say, ‘Hey, we really need to give this a try for our students.’”
Anderson said if basketball runs smoothly, the board may make similar decisions for other sports.
Gov. JB Pritzker — who is battling a spike in COVID-19 cases in Illinois as well as resistance to state mitigation efforts from restaurant owners and others — said the state has followed the guidance of national medical organizations and disagrees with IHSA’s actions. He said school districts that move ahead with competitive basketball could face legal liability.
“IHSA may have their views of it, but school districts know what the rules are,” 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 had set as the mitigation standard.”
Anderson defended IHSA’s move, saying the board observed how schools practiced and played other sports this fall, and he said there were few incidents associated with those activities. Student athletes have been rallying for weeks for Pritzker to allow sports like football and basketball, saying it was important for their mental health and well being. Anderson said it was a key reason why the board decided to go against state guidance.
“COVID[-19] is something we need to be concerned about, and we continue to be so,” Anderson said. “But if there’s a place where students should be competing, it’s within our schools where safety guidelines that we put forth will be followed and students can reap all the benefits of participation.”
School districts will make the final decision about whether they will allow their students to participate. Anderson said games would be played within an Illinois COVID[-19] region or conference. Extra precautions will be taken, like mandatory masks and extra breaks. Still, he’s aware basketball could still get shut down.
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen from now to Nov. 30,” Anderson said. “To me, it’s a big deal to say to government officials or the department of public health that we’re going to go a different direction in how you’re advising. I have no idea how that’s going to play out for us.”