Commentary: Athletes, schools, caught in the middle as IHSA, Pritzker battle over hoops

Dave Eminian
Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, left, and Illinois High School Association executive director Craig Anderson.

PEORIA — Basketball has turned into a political football kicked back and forth between Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois High School Association.

The IHSA might be the first state high school sports organization in the country to defy a governor's lock down orders amid the pandemic. Center of the universe stuff, right here in central Illinois.

Pritzker delivered a sneak attack on Tuesday when he gave the IHSA a 15-minute heads up that he was ordering no basketball be played this winter.

Insulted, the IHSA returned the gesture at its meeting the next morning by defying the state's orders, instead announcing basketball season was on as scheduled with a November launch.

Pritzker kicked back before sundown Wednesday by mentioning the Illinois State Board of Education — which controls funding to public school systems — will be expected to follow his orders.

On Thursday morning, the guv declared basketball season will be delayed until the spring.

The IHSA didn’t blink.

“Why would we want to put basketball in the spring or summer season and create the crazy conflicts of athletes overlapping in so many major sports, forcing them to choose, trying to figure out how to make facility space work, trying to manage all those sports we’ve already moved?” IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said. “That won’t work.

“Nothing has changed. We’re still playing. We aren’t playing basketball in the spring or summer.”

Can't wait to see what the weekend brings.

Do you have COVID fatigue, with politics intruding on sports intruding on science intruding on personal choice?

I want kids to play. I don’t want them to die or spread COVID to others who might.

So how do we walk this fine line?

I'd feel better about the science if there wasn't politics seemingly injected into these lock downs nationwide. The IHSA might feel better about the science if the Illinois Department of Public Health hadn't refused to show the metrics it used to arrive at the cancellation of hoops season.

I'd trust the science if maybe the science in Illinois matched the science in Indiana, where they are playing fall football, and Ohio, where they are playing fall football, and in places like Indiana and Wisconsin, where youth club hockey teams from Illinois have been traveling to play games because Illinois has deemed the sports high-risk.

Gov. Pritzker's science includes a document titled "Science Behind Winter Sports Guideline." There is some good science in it. Valid science. And there is also reference to studies of hockey players aged 19-53, South Korean women with an average age of 42 taking Zumba classes, and squash players in Slovenia.

I kid you not.

Pritzker’s own science, according to a stunning piece this week by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Konkol, might be infected with politics.

The piece details hundreds of emails and a secret report in which scientists advising Pritzker say coronavirus test positivity rates that guide his pandemic response are unreliable. It’s a heavy read, but worth your time. I can understand why the IDPH and the governor’s office didn’t want to share its metrics with the IHSA.

So the IHSA stood up for its athletes and stood up to the governor, gave its blessings to play, and passed the decision on to individual school districts.

What do we do now?

Well, the Chicago Public Schools quickly fell in line Thursday night, announcing their basketball season was canceled per state guidelines.

Can't wait to see the player recruiting raids up there for club teams and schools in surrounding states.

"We've been put right in the middle of this now," Stark County schools superintendent Brett Elliott said Thursday. "The community is excited because they hear 'We can play basketball,' while we could face legal action from a family if a kid gets sick from playing, and we could face funding cuts from the state if we play."

Speaking of legal consequences, would the IHSA or governor's office move this barroom brawl into the courts?

The IHSA is fighting off financial disaster. Playing hoops without spectators won't help that, but at least it would help avoid another round of high school seniors ending this chapter of their athletic careers without ever playing again.

"Kids are going to play," Illinois Elementary School Association executive director Steve Endsley told me Wednesday night. "They just won't play here. They’ll get on club teams and go across the border to play games in other states. That will effectively increase the risk of the virus spreading back to Illinois.

"The top players will find ways to play. All that these restrictions by the state accomplish is to hurt the kid who's on the bottom half of a roster, sitting on the bench, maybe in a family that can't afford to put him on a travel team.

"That kid never gets to play again."

Anderson on Wednesday acknowledged the positivity rates for COVID are rising in Illinois. He believes in the IHSA’s science and its medical advisory committee's safety protocols.

The fine print of the IHSA plan for basketball, bowling, cheerleading, dance, girls gymnastics and boys swimming and diving reached its website Thursday night.

The IHSA presented its research to the state last week. On the eve of the board's meeting Wednesday, Pritzker jammed it down the IHSA's throat before re-categorizing basketball as a high-risk sport.

It's hard for one side to comply when it doesn't feel it has a seat at the table.

Communication and compromise is a science, too.

That’s all for Cleve In The Eve on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

Here’s your sports quote of the day:

“You mean there aren't enough people mad at me already?”

— President Ronald Reagan, on being presented with a referee's uniform during a visit from the NBA commissioner

Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for Reach him at 686-3206 or Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.

Dave Eminian