When counties go green, Pennsylvania high school sports officials still left in gray area

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Gov. Tom Wolf

Approximately half of Pennsylvania will move to the green phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide reopening plan this coming Friday, but high school sports teams are still in a gray area about what that means to them.

Are team workouts allowed again? Can football teams gather together and pass a ball between players? Can a basketball team go into the school gym for shooting practice?

Those are just some of the questions Pennsylvania high school teams have, even after Wolf announced Friday that 16 more counties will go green Friday, June 5. But high school teams in the green counties are not sure what they are permitted to do because Wolf has not set any guidelines yet for high school sports.

York County is presently in the yellow phase and there has been no announcement about when the county may move to the green phase.

PIAA has July 1 date, but that may change: The PIAA, the governing body of state high school athletics, declared in April that no high school teams could have group workouts, on or off school property, until July 1 at the earliest.

Bob Lombardi

That declaration included weightlifting sessions. PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said the organization made the ruling under the direction of the governor’s office and the Pennsylvania departments of health and education.

But last week, the PIAA board of directors gave power to Lombardi to lift the workout ban earlier, if the governor gave clearance. Lombardi said earlier this week that he has been in contact with representatives of the governor’s office through emails but has not received any guidelines. Mark Byers, chief operating officer of the PIAA, said the organization is hoping guidelines come next week.

“We are really on hold until we receive those,” Byers said. “We’re not interested in putting something out there first that contradicts something that comes out of the governor’s office. We will offer guidance after we see that.”

The start of “official” practices for high school sports begins in August, but it is common for football teams to have voluntary workouts — without contact — on the field, starting in the spring or early summer. It is also common for other sports teams to have offseason workouts in the spring and summer, such as “open gym” for basketball.

National guidelines: Two weeks ago, the National Federation of State High School Associations released suggested guidelines for schools that were given permission to start workouts again. But the PIAA has said it doesn’t have to follow the guidelines.

The organization has also said it will not take an “all or none” approach to allowing teams to start workouts. Although an official vote wasn’t taken last week, a number of board members spoke up on the matter of letting teams start workouts county by county.

“We did forward the National Federation guidelines to the governor’s office, asking for comment,” Byers said. “What we received back is that many initiatives from the National Federation are expected to be in the guidelines they communicate.”

Wolf weighs in: Wolf said Friday that he has talked personally with representatives of professional sports teams, and representatives of his office have been in contact with the PIAA.

“What we’re all trying to do is develop, mainly in conjunction with sports groups, guidelines to say what are we going to do,” Wolf said.

Judging from some other Wolf comments, perhaps high school teams should be optimistic about games being played in the fall. Wolf said he expects schools will be open in the fall, but maybe with more learning online and less in the classroom.

When asked whether high school sports would look different in the fall, Wolf said, “I think everything is going to look different in the fall. I don’t know, what does a ‘whiteout’ at Penn State look like in the fall? I think every single high school, middle school and elementary school in the commonwealth is thinking about how can we get back to as close to normal as can be, but keep the people safe, keep the parents safe, keep the staff safe and keep the kids safe.”

It’s conceivable that the PIAA will eventually provide high school guidelines, based upon the governor’s recommendations. But schools might have the final decision on when team workouts can start.