COLLINS: PIAA makes easy call, but hard decisions remain for state, school districts

(Wilkes-Barre) Citizens Voice (TNS)
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf
  • The PIAA has approved a plan to go ahead with fall high school sports as scheduled.
  • The PIAA, however, won't have the final call on whether fall sports actually occur.
  • The final call likely belongs to Gov. Tom Wolf's administration and individual school districts.

There are some things the PIAA board of directors did Wednesday afternoon that are totally worth admiring.

For starters, in a time when so many high school students have lost so much in the way of social experiences, the PIAA overwhelmingly voted to not take away any more. It offered an assuring nod, not just to the physical benefits of playing prep sports, but the mental health rewards that so often get lost in the pursuit of wins in the rivalry game and district championship trophies.

Surrounded by nothing but problems, the board scratched and clawed toward some solutions. It inched us all a bit closer to normalcy, voting 29-3 to approve the recommendations made last week by its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee that paved the way for high school sports to return in the fall as scheduled, or close to it.

Two of the votes against the proposal came from the board’s representatives from the state principals association and the state school board association. Which should tell you something, especially considering school districts hold plenty of power when it comes to moving forward with sports now.

Bob Lombardi

It’s a plan that allows schools that want to start sports on time to do so, that allows other schools and leagues to start later, if they so desire. It makes provisions for regular playoffs and shortened ones, for games that have to be canceled because of COVID-19 concerns, for schools that want to navigate potential pitfalls with an abundance of caution and prefer no penalty for doing so.

It is, in short, a plan to encompass all plans and all possibilities, a plan to make everyone as happy and as hopeful as they can be.

“There has been an awful lot of effort from an awful lot of people,” PIAA executive director Dr. Robert Lombardi said. “We feel it is vitally important to give our student-athletes every opportunity they can have to be student-athletes. We are advocates for them.”

Problem is, today’s hopes can be dashed by tomorrow’s realities, and all too often they are.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine

Wolf, schools are key players: Here’s a prediction for you: Essentially making no decision at all — which to a degree is what the PIAA did here — will lead to less fall sports being made available to your sons and daughters.

Don’t take Wednesday’s vote as an indication that high school sports will be played this fall. There’s still a long way to go before that is certain, and with COVID-19 numbers around the state still concerning to health officials, the truth is the decision on whether any of this happens could, and likely will, fall in the laps of:

Gov. Tom Wolf and state health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who didn’t endorse the PIAA plan earlier this week and instead said the state should base sports’ return on the same data being used to judge when classrooms should reopen.

School districts that have to weigh whether they could possibly meet what on paper are a pretty stringent set of standards to keep their own student-athletes and the ones they’re competing against safe.

The adherence problem: In the PIAA’s own return to competition guidelines, which were approved unanimously Wednesday, it stated that a “reasonably safe environment” to play can be provided by — and this was written in bold-face, capital letters and underlined — “strict adherence” to school-adopted COVID plans and the Governor’s School Sports Guidance.

Strict adherence being the standard here, it’s fair to wonder whether school districts can possibly provide it. According to its guidelines, the PIAA demands, among plenty of other benchmarks, that anyone involved in sports it sanctions complete a personal daily health assessment (no fevers above 100.4 degrees), regular hand washing for players and coaches, regular sanitizing of facilities by districts, strict social distancing enforcement, consistent use of face coverings, constant communication between competing schools and a slew of other measures that the PIAA can ask players and coaches and administrators to adhere to, but can’t possibly enforce on its own.

In other words, fall sports can go on if every district can do what the Miami Marlins couldn’t: Do everything necessary to minimize the spread of this vile virus.

Enormous challenge: Good on them, if they think they can. But understand the enormity of that challenge. To push forward at this point is a risk. The PIAA is certainly advocating measures to minimize COVID’s spread among student-athletes. But there is a dire need, in this state and practically every other one around the nation, for strong leadership and a similar adherence to best practices. Frankly, we haven’t met the latter standard. The virus is still spreading. There are people not wearing masks, not social distancing, not taking this particularly seriously.

Is this what’s going to get everybody thinking differently?

At best, the PIAA is providing options, possibility and hope amidst a prayer for best-case scenarios. At worst, it’s delaying the inevitable decision, leaving enough room for someone else — be it Wolf or Levine or school districts themselves — to be the fall guy for an unpopular but ultimately necessary decision.

In the meantime, we’re talking about plans for high school sports playoffs this fall, in an area where many schools are considering starting the academic year remotely. Hope all you want, but there’s just something about it all that doesn’t seem likely or possible. Or, for that matter, right.