HEISER: Pa. fall sports debate to likely shift from Wolf and PIAA to local school boards

York City school board members Arleta Riviera (left) and Cassandra Liggins (middle), along with Superintendent Andrea Berry, are shown at a recent school board meeting. Local school boards may have the final say on whether fall sports are played in their districts in 2020.
  • Gov. Tom Wolf has strongly recommended that youth sports not be played until 2021.
  • The PIAA is expected to approve a fall scholastic sports plan on Friday.
  • Ultimately, however, the decision on fall sports will likely rest with individual school districts.

Gov. Tom Wolf has had his say.

Friday, the PIAA will have its say.

Ultimately, however, each individual school district will likely have the final say.

That’s the way things are shaping up in the seemingly never-ending saga involving fall high school sports in Pennsylvania.

Since the COVID-19 resurgence hit Pennsylvania in mid-July, the future of scholastic athletics in the state has been in serious doubt.

More than a month later, not much has changed.

Wolf, for his part, has staked out his position. It’s his strong recommendation that youth sports be suspended until at least Jan. 1, 2021. He appears unwilling, however, to make his recommendation into an order, instead leaving the final call to others.

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The folks at the PIAA, meanwhile, are giving every indication that they will ignore Wolf’s recommendation and go ahead with fall sports, albeit on a delayed basis and with truncated regular seasons and postseasons. Another PIAA vote on fall sports is expected to come on Friday afternoon.

If the PIAA gives its approval to fall sports on Friday, you can expect most individual leagues around the state to follow the PIAA’s lead. After all, the PIAA and the leagues are in the business of promoting high school sports, not canceling them.

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At first glance, Wolf’s reluctance to issue an outright ban on fall sports, and the PIAA’s expected decision to move forward with fall sports, would seem to indicate we are going to have a fall sports season.

That, however, is far from a certainty.

From a trickle to a flood? Already, there’s been a trickle of individual school districts in the state who have decided to pull the plug on fall sports for athletes under their jurisdiction. If the PIAA goes ahead and approves a fall sports plan on Friday, that trickle may become a flood.

There’s a simple reason for that. Many school districts were likely waiting to see what Wolf and the PIAA would do. If Wolf issued a complete ban, or the PIAA decided on its own to scrap fall sports, the decision would be made for the districts.

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To be honest, that is probably the outcome that many school board members were secretly hoping for. Under that scenario, Wolf and/or the PIAA would be the bad guys taking away scholastic sports opportunities for thousands of teenagers across the state.

At hearing, PIAA boss says his organization wants to move forward with fall sports

Wolf, however, has not cooperated with that plan, and it doesn’t appear like the PIAA will, either. That’s not all that surprising. Neither Wolf, nor PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi, appear anxious to absorb the virulent backlash that will wash over the person or persons who elect to cancel fall sports.

Decision lands in laps of school districts: That brings us back to the individual school districts. Like it or not, they will have the decision thrown back into their laps, and most of them won’t like it.

No matter their decisions, they are going to face intense criticism. To play, or not to play, has passionate proponents on both sides. We won’t go into all the arguments here. They’ve been detailed at length over the last month.

Liability insurance could become major hurdle if PIAA OKs fall seasons

There is likely one issue, however, that may override everything else for the local districts, and that is liability. What happens when the families of student-athletes who fall ill with COVID-19 sue the districts?  In our litigious society, that is almost guaranteed to happen. It doesn’t matter what waivers are signed or what precautions are taken.

Individual districts must also decide whether ignoring Wolf’s recommendation creates any additional legal liability.

Lombardi, for his part, is seeking protection for the schools, but thus far, he said the cost of that protection looks “cost prohibitive.”

Risk vs. reward: If no solution for the liability problem can be found, you can likely kiss fall sports goodbye in many schools. The pandemic has already put districts into a severe financial pinch. Adding a potential sports liability issue to that fiscal crisis would likely be a deal-breaker for many school board members.

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Here in York County, the Dallastown superintendent has already recommended to his school board that fall sports not be played. You can likely expect more of the same in the days and weeks to come, especially if there is no let-up in the current COVID-19 resurgence.

Some folks in power will reason — with more than a little justification — that the risk is simply too great compared to the reward, especially with so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s future course.

Snowball effect: Once one local school officially makes that decision, you can expect to see others follow suit.

Call it the snowball effect.

You see the same thing with winter storm cancellations. Once one local district makes the call to cancel school, the other area districts almost always do the same in short order. No one wants to be the one local school accused of putting kids at unnecessary risk.

The fall sports situation is similar, but the risk for the school boards is even greater during the COVID-19 era.

Debate shift: So, the fall sports debate will rage on, but it will now likely shift from Gov. Wolf and the PIAA to local school boards.

There’s little doubt, however, it’s a decision that school board members hoped they wouldn’t have to make.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.