By Lenny Sementi
The hoops saga continues. After a tumultuous few weeks of back and forth between the governor’s office and the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) about winter sports Tuscola’s high school basketball season is now currently on hold. Governor JB Pritzker and the Illinois Public Health Department re-categorized basketball from medium risk to high risk at the end October postponing the start of the season and one day later the IHSA countered telling schools they could play and continue as planned starting with practice, which would have begun this past Monday the 16th.
Governor Pritzker followed stating schools would have to deal with the consequences of possible liability. “The IHSA may have their views of it but school districts know what the rules are and it’s unfortunate, but they would probably be taking on legal liability if they moved beyond what the state has set as the mitigation standard.”
Chicago public schools almost immediately announced that girls and boys high school and elementary school basketball would be postponed and would possibly be moved to the spring or summer of 2021. Numerous districts followed with worries about tort liability at the forefront of their concerns.
A tort is defined as “a wrongful act other than a breach of contract for which relief may be obtained in the form of damages or an injunction.” Insurers use tort immunities issued by the state for defense against lawsuits. If districts do not adhere to the IDPH and Governor’s guidelines they will lose those immunities putting insurers in a spot that will force them to deny insurance coverage.
The first ripple that affected schools in our area came when the Catholic Diocese of Peoria put the season on hold shutting down St. Thomas More, Danville Schlarman and Bloomington Central Catholic. Numerous districts followed including Tuscola’s CUSD #301. Superintendent Gary Alexander issued a statement on the 12th following the district’s November board meeting.
He quickly summed up what most of us have been feeling for a while now, “Frustration! The definition of frustration is defined as the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of the inability to change or achieve something. This is the feeling the Tuscola Board of Education, administration, athletic director, coaches, and athletes have felt with communication and decisions made by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the IHSA.”
“After much consideration and research into the situation, Tuscola School District #301 will follow the IDPH Sports Guidance. This decision was not taken lightly and was made with great frustration. The IDPH guidelines put basketball in the high-risk category. Only individual skill work is allowed,” Alexander stated.
“Legal counsel has advised the school district to follow IDPH guidelines. In their advice, they state that going against the IDPH guidelines will be seen as willful and wanton. Yesterday, the IHSA advised schools starting practice on November 16 to follow IDPH guidelines through their board meeting on November 19.”
Alexander contacted every superintendent on the Warriors high school schedule before the board meeting. Both the boys and girls teams had just two schools that planned on playing basketball and a combined six schools that were still yet to decide, four on the boys side and two on the girls. The rest of the scheduled schools were going to follow the IDPH’s guidelines.
As stated earlier the biggest hurdles are insurance related and Tuscola’s insurer let it be known that it is imperative that CUSD #301 follow the directives instituted by the IDPH. “It was this information that led to the decision to follow IDPH guidelines,” said Alexander in his letter.
“We understand the frustration, disappointment, and confusion this situation has generated. We are experiencing the same emotions. I waited to write this letter until I saw what happened at the IHSA meeting yesterday. They have invited the Governor and IDPH to their meeting on November 19. I hope, for the sake of our student-athletes, the communication breakdown is solved with this meeting and we can get a clear picture moving forward. This is a fluid situation.”
In a virtual update session on the 11th the IHSA Board of Directors ahead of their scheduled meeting this Thursday the 19th announced they are formally inviting representatives from both the Governor’s office and IDPH to attend the meeting. They are also seeking representation from the Illinois Principals Association and the Illinois Board of Education along with almost 200 superintendents from around the state that have recently contacted the Governor’s regarding athletics this school year.
The Executive Director of the IHSA Craig Anderson stated, “The Board hopes to create a dialogue and build a more collaborative relationship with all entities involved with sports policy in our state as everyone tries to navigate the myriad of issues caused by the pandemic. The Board’s decision to move forward with the IHSA basketball season was not meant to be adversarial. It was rooted in a desire to receive more direct communication and data from our state partners. They hope all the groups will see the mutual benefit of increased discourse and be represented at the meeting on November 19th.”
They also advised any schools who planned to begin basketball practice on the 16th to adhere to the guidelines set forth by the IDPH until the 19th and hopes to provide more direction following the meeting.
TCHS Principal Steve Fiscus reiterated Alexander’s comments on adhering to the guidelines stating it was an “excruciating decision. We are hopeful the IHSA, the Governor and the IDPH can meet and resolve this soon and create a true winter season that will allow our student athletes the chance to play. These students, especially the seniors, deserve the opportunity.”
“Based on the recent trends in the state of Illinois, last week’s announcement was inevitable yet still devastating,” head boys basketball coach Justin Bozarth said.
“I am thankful for our board and Mr. Alexander who put a lot of time, effort and research into the possibility of us being able to safely play. We are hopeful that our season can still be salvaged at some point during this school year.”
Long time head girls basketball coach Tim Kohlbecker was right in line with Bozarth. “With the issues the administration had to form their decision around I believe they absolutely made the right choice to delay starting,” commented Kohlbecker. “I remain hopeful that we will play at some point and I know the administration wants the kids playing, but they have to safeguard all the interests of the district.”
Warrior athletic director Ryan Hornaday has been in the middle of this since March 13th and weighed in on the recent developments involving winter sports. “As Mr. Alexander clearly explained in his letter addressing the IHSA/state governmental disagreement, we’re stuck in the middle and by no means could defy orders. We do wish our kids could be afforded the opportunity to play. When you look at the states all around us, it seems like our young people are being used as political pawns, which is incredibly disappointing. The truth of the matter is, we’re facing pretty significant mental and emotional health issues. Allowing our students the opportunity to “get something back” in these incredibly trying times would be overwhelmingly welcomed. Our students have been vigorously active for the last several months, all while wearing masks. They don’t think anything of it anymore. I’d even venture to say that they’d be willing to wear just about anything at this point if it meant they’d be allowed the chance to play.”