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State, IHSA have different plans for winter sports

IHSA says it plans to move ahead with basketball, State says liability could loom for districts that participate

The private organization that governs high school sports in the state voted Wednesday to begin the basketball season next month - defying the new guidance for winter sports that Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health outlined a day earlier.

The winter sports guidelines from Pritzker and the IDPH - which divides activities into low-, medium- and high-risk categories - upgraded basketball to a high-risk sport. Basketball was originally classified as medium-risk in the fall sports guidelines issued over the summer.

The guidance also offers four different levels of activity for each sport, ranging from level 1, which permits only no-contact practices and training, to level 4, which allows for play in tournaments. Under the state's guidance, basketball would be allowed to continue at level 1.

In explaining the change, Pritzker released a document citing recent health studies that indicates vigorous physical exercise and heavy breathing, combined with frequent contacts among other players, can facilitate transmission of COVID-19.

Following that announcement on Tuesday, the Illinois High School Association's board classified basketball as a medium-risk sport, which is subject to lesser restrictions under the activity levels.

While Pritzker later announced basketball would be moved to spring, IHSA maintained that basketball season would start on Nov. 16.

In a statement, the IHSA board said it made the decision to follow the recommendation of the IHSA's Sports Medicine Advisory Committee as it relates to basketball. The board also noted it "will review spectator and group gatherings for all winter sports at a future meeting in November."

The board said the committee requires some additional restrictions, such as mask wearing during play and social distancing on benches.

"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," the statement reads.

"Mounting challenges, from increased mental health issues among our students to a shrinking calendar that limits our ability to move sport seasons this school year, were instrumental in this decision to move forward with basketball as scheduled...Students can be better protected in the high school setting, and the Board remains steadfast that playing under IHSA rules and SMAC mitigation is the safest way to conduct athletics at this juncture."

Local schools are allowed to make their own decisions about whether to participate in basketball, according to the board's statement.

On Thursday, in response to a question about the IHSA, Pritzker suggested that schools could face legal consequences if illness or injury results from sports play that is contrary to the state's guidance.

"I finally will say that schools, I think as I've said several times, will potentially be subject to some legal liability if something happens as a result of their playing a sport that we've issued guidance about that is not congruous with what the school is operating under," he said.

After the IHSA's decision, Illinois State Board of Education Superintendent Dr. Carmen Ayala issued a statement criticizing the IHSA for contradicting public health guidance. She also echoed Pritzker's concerns about exposing schools to legal liability.

"Defying the state's public health guidance opens up schools to liability and other ramifications that may negatively impact school communities," Ayala's statement read.

An IHSA spokesperson declined to comment to Capitol News Illinois about the potential legal liability raised by Pritzker.

In an interview with reporters on Wednesday, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson was asked about filing a lawsuit.

"You know at some point, I think over the next month or whatever time frame, we'll figure out if this is a legal issue for us as an association or if it is for our schools - and then we'll have to pivot, as we've been pivoting a number of times throughout this school year," Anderson said.

"This is a step forward to really say that as an association we think we can do it safely, and we want it for our students."


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