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COLLINS: Pa. fall high school sports needs defender, but it doesn't appear to have one

DONNIE COLLINS
(Wilkes-Barre) Citizens Voice (TNS)
York Suburban's Savion Harrison, left, celebrates after scoring a touchdown last year. The status of the 2020 high school fall season is in limbo.

The buck stops somewhere over there, evidently.

Down the street and a few blocks around the corner from the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s desk. Then another mile away from common sense, then a couple more paces clear of the best interests of school-aged athletes around the state who deserve to know — who need to know — what to expect for their immediate athletic future.

That buck is getting passed lately more than a pigskin in a Big 12 offense. Here’s guessing that’s going to be the legacy of so many people in charge of making this entire mess we’re living in this year once we’re out of this nightmare.

How we got to a point where the immediate future of high school sports is so murky is mind-boggling, and that should be of the utmost concern to all of us.

Wild two days: We went from Thursday morning, when Gov. Tom Wolf, with no warning, closed a news conference with state health officials by saying he strongly recommends no youth sports be held in the commonwealth until Jan. 1. Then we get an emergency meeting of the PIAA, the state’s governing body for scholastic sports, that afternoon, in which Wolf holds steadfast to his assertion, building toward what we all expected would be a Friday denouement, when the PIAA held a special meeting to consider which direction to turn in light of Wolf’s grand pronouncement.

And the board decided...

Nothing. Unthinkably, they decided nothing.

They pushed the pause button on fall sports for two weeks, seeking “insight” from and a “partnership” with the governor’s office.

Kids still in holding pattern: The vote came two weeks after its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee unanimously agreed sports could be played safely, and one week after it overwhelmingly passed a measure to allow districts and leagues statewide to make the call to go ahead with games when they are ready. And now, kids who were in a holding pattern for months and months — holding out hope the aspects of their school experience that maybe they can so safely will go on — are thrown into one again.

Robert Lombardi, the PIAA’s executive director, spent much of Friday afternoon trying to convince the media his organization isn’t just kicking the proverbial can down the street, hoping someone else picks it up. But he has to understand how bad this looks.

Too many decisions made on the fly: Here’s the problem with all of this: We’ve been living with the pandemic for almost five months. The problems should not be new to us, and yet, every decision seems to be made on the fly. It’s early August. Where are the researched contingency plans? Why is the PIAA blindsided by Wolf’s recommendation? Why is Wolf so ill-informed about the effectiveness of the PIAA’s protocols?

In defense of the PIAA, it’s puzzling Wolf didn’t consider that many of the sports he wants canceled could be coached and competed in well within safety guidelines he and his medical team set forth.

Football? Basketball? Wrestling? OK, those sports are a different story. But Wolf wanted no tennis or golf, two sports in which you never have to be within six feet of another teammate or competitor. He also would cancel distance running, a timed event that very easily could be altered to prevent any close contact between opponents. What’s the upshot of denying, or even delaying, those opportunities for kids?

Other sports are happening: All around his state, for the better part of the last two months, travel baseball teams gathered for tournaments. There is AAU basketball. There are Little Leagues competing. There are youth competitions going on all around us, and these leagues are doing their best to set policies and procedures to make sure state guidelines are followed.

Are those policies and procedures failing? Are we seeing outbreaks because sports are going on? If so, I haven’t seen the statistics or read the first-hand accounts to prove it.

Wolf being too proactive: But at least the issue with Wolf is that he’s being too proactive. Spout all the numbers you want about how the young generally aren’t affected adversely by the virus. But a 7-year-old with no known health issues died of COVID-19 last week in Georgia. A college football player at Indiana contracted the virus and is suffering hearth issues now. There are worries among doctors that the virus can have neurological implications for children. We simply don’t know enough about what long-term effects this disease is going to have.

So, it’s easy to see where Wolf is coming from. He essentially recommended — that’s the key word here — what he has since March, that we do all we can to prevent getting and spreading the coronavirus. That seems like solid, albeit completely life-altering, advice.

Lack of leadership at PIAA: Leadership is someone willing to make the tough decision when it has to be made, and the real lack of leadership here falls on the PIAA.

When it came to playing sports, it left that decision last week to hundreds of other people: School-district administrators, league officials, principals, some who grasp the risks, some who are more inclined to ignore them. Friday, it effectively threw the decision back to Wolf.

Understand, it’s the PIAA’s role to stand up for sports, to push for the benefits of competition, to stress the importance of physical and mental health for high school students, now more than ever. To insist, if it really does believe what it said in recent weeks, that this can be done safely and responsibly, and that it has been demonstrated.

It didn’t accept that role Friday. Instead, the PIAA sent the decision tumbling toward a governor whose stance is at the very least perfectly clear.

The PIAA is the last line of defense in pursuit of the hope that student-athletes want, and frankly deserve, to hold close now. It could give that to them, if only it would stop retreating.