Fall’s most popular high school sports lost out as public health, sports and academic leaders put pandemic restrictions on youth, high school and adult amateur sports starting Aug. 15.
The Friday night lights will be dark and high school stadiums quiet across Illinois this fall because Gov. J.B. Pritzker imposed new COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions on sports for the upcoming school year.
The new rules are stricter than in neighboring states.
After discussion with the governor’s office over the guidelines, the Illinois High School Association decided to move higher-risk sports such as football, volleyball and soccer to the spring. Golf, tennis, cross country and swimming will begin on schedule in compliance with the COVID-19 guidelines Pritzker announced July 29.
Nationally, Illinois and five other states were the only ones to move football to 2021. Most Midwestern states are making no changes – including Illinois’ next-door neighbors, except two that are delaying football.
Wisconsin and Kentucky are allowing high school fall sports practices to proceed with later start dates. Iowa is moving forward normally and recently hosted the state finals for high school baseball and softball. Missouri is planning on hosting sports seasons, but only if schools continue in-person learning. Indiana is also moving forward with high school sports, with practices underway.
An outbreak of COVID-19 at Lake Zurich High School that infected 73 people, many of them student athletes, put renewed focus on whether high school sports would be safe to resume in the fall. The cases were linked to Independence Day parties but were first detected among student athletes at the start of a sports camp.
Also in early July, IHSA sports had resumed practices and camps with social distancing rules but the association was sued for its restrictions on athletes such as requiring many to wear a mask at practice. In response, IHSA deferred to the Illinois Department of Public Health and Pritzker’s office to make rules governing safe play.
Pritzker categorized each sport under a risk level and introduced phases for competition. Under the plan, sports such as golf, running and baseball were categorized as low risk; basketball, soccer and volleyball as medium risk; and football, lacrosse and competitive cheer were listed as high risk.
Each sport was given a level of competition ranging from one to four. High-risk sports were placed in Phase 1, in which only conditioning and no-contact practices are allowed. Medium risk sports are under Phase 2, which allows for intra-team scrimmages with parental permission, but there can be no competitive play. Low-risk sports will be allowed to proceed more normally under Phase 3, with conference play and the possibility of a championship game.
No sport is currently allowed to play under Phase 4 rules, which allow nearly normal operations including out-of-conference or out-of-state play.
While the focus has been on youth and high school sports, Pritzker’s rules also govern amateur adult sports starting Aug. 15. Pro and collegiate sports are not covered by the rules.
Illinois has been quick to restrict its residents, at one point imposing the nation’s strictest mandates on its business community. Those rules are still hurting Illinois’ economy months after they were eased, especially impacting women and minority workers’ abilities to return to their jobs.
Outpacing neighboring states for high school sports restrictions should serve as a red flag. Unfortunately, Illinois’ high school seniors will pay the price as spring football, volleyball and soccer come too late to matter for their college recruitment prospects.