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Last week, the area high school sports news cycle should have been all about sectional football games on-going in Indiana, but attention quickly turned to an unseemly tit-fot-tat squabble in Illinois.

Governor J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois High School Association became embroiled in a very public, very unnecessary and very much unresolved fight in whether to delay or proceed with winter sports with the COVID-19 pandemic once again ramping up.

Winter sports are more risky than outdoor fall and spring sports because most of them involve close contact and the likelihood of transmission is higher with no outdoor air to dissipate potential contagion.

Last Tuesday, Pritzker surprised everyone when he declared high school basketball — a sport nearly as revered in Illinois as it is in Indiana — was now considered a high-risk activity and that its start was on hold.

The IHSA, which had a plan to be announced to the public the next day, was irritated that Pritzker usurped their plan before it was announced to the public. In an act of rare defiance by any high school sanctioning body for any reason, much less in the middle of a public health crisis, the IHSA said it was going ahead with its plan anyway, with high school basketball starting in late November.

That put pressure on Pritzker. He countered on Thursday by stating that high school basketball could be played in the spring.

None of this actually resolved anything. Pritzker can't stop a school from playing basketball. A school can't stop anyone from suing them for being exposed at a game, as Pritzker implied was the threat schools who defied Illinois health orders could face. So now, we're in a holding pattern as each school district is left to decide on its own whether to play on.

The whole thing was unseemly. The pawns in all of this are the high schools, the players and the coaches, a totally unnecessary faux pas on both "sides" of this tiff. From the Indiana outside looking in? I'd put a pox on both of their houses. Pritzker should have worked with the IHSA in a far more constructive manner than whatever was or wasn't done. Undercutting the IHSA plan came off as needless interference. 

The IHSA didn't cover themselves in glory either. Taking this to a higher level than whether teams play or not, defying a public health order, whether you agree with it or not, is irresponsible. I have no time for the anti-maskers and folks who refuse to do their part to fight COVID-19, and whether the IHSA intended it or not, they amplified the ignorance of those who continue to refuse to accept how serious this pandemic is.

The IHSA also kicked the can down the road in some respect and placed the decision to play in the hands of the individual schools. In a vacuum, the vast majority of high schools would likely love to play, just as their Indiana counterparts have. The reality is far from a vacuum, though.

The risk for the schools is liability. Violating a public health order isn't jaywalking or driving five miles over the speed limit. It's serious business. If a pair of schools elected to play and had even one case of COVID-19 that occurred due to someone playing in or attending the game? The school is at-risk to be sued.

If you think that's unlikely? Remember, one of the biggest early COVID-19 outbreaks in Indiana occurred at a Lawrence North-Lawrence Central sectional game back in March. Several in attendance died of COVID-19.

I asked Illinois principals and superintendents what they felt their liability risk was. Most didn't respond, but a few did.

Paris Union School District No. 95 superintendent Jeremy Lawson spoke on-the-record.

"At this time, Paris Union School District No. 95 is taking time to understand the situation and all implications that we face with either decision. Each day more information unfolds, and at this time we would be premature to make any decision," Lawson said. "In terms of the ramifications of a decision, I don't know what they are yet. Our district will be carefully working with our local health department, community, and neighboring districts to ensure we make the best decision for our school communities."

Another area superintendent wished to stay anonymous.

"Quite frankly, I'm not afraid of the IDPH or ISBE sanctions nearly as much as I am a lawsuit if something were to go wrong. If I knew we had immunity from litigation, this would be an easy decision. What's best for kids is to play," the superintendent said.

"I haven't had a chance to see where our board stands on the issue and I'm waiting to hear from them first before I spend money on legal counseling. It may not even be necessary depending on what direction we want to go. I'm also sitting back a bit to see where other districts land regarding the situation," the same superintendent said.

Naturally, many in Illinois, especially near the state line, have looked to Indiana and its ability to conduct high school sports in the fall. Some, frankly, over-state how "easy" it has been for Indiana to pull it off.

"I don't know a lot about the climate in Indiana but it must be working since there hasn't been a lot of press coverage saying it's not. I don't know that Illinois needs to do anything better. If we use the Indiana model, I think things would go smoothly," the superintendent surmised.

I'm glad Indiana elected to play, but it hasn't been close to smooth. Effectively, each county and each school district is its own little fiefdom. In some places, mask compliance, social distancing and limited attendance have been strictly adhered to. In other places, all of the above have been nearly nonexistent. In my observation, it's no accident that many of the schools that have had to pause various sports are the same ones who have very little compliance when it comes to keeping COVID-19 in-check. Schools that have tried harder have had fewer disruptions.

In other words? You get out of playing sports what effort you put in to keep them going. 

Could Illinois do the same? The IHSA guidelines are much more restrictive than Indiana's are. Basketball would have to played with masks on. Crowds would be not much more than family members, etc.

So, sure, Illinois could do what Indiana has done if the powers-that-be would get out of their own way and reach some sort of compromise.

But Illinoisans who find themselves in absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder for high school sports mode should know this. It's not easy to make it work. It requires effort. It requires buy-in. It requires a lot more work than what we once considered to be routine on the part of athletes, coaches and administrators.

It also requires more than lip service to public safety. If all of that can be done? I hope the games can go on.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter at @TribStarTodd.

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