Liability insurance could become major hurdle if PIAA OKs fall seasons

The Erie Times-News (TNS)

The months-long saga over whether the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association will conduct fall sports should come to a defining moment Friday.

The final say on which schools will compete this fall, however, might go on another week or two while individual school districts determine whether their athletes will compete.

Now it appears liability and the PIAA's insurance might become issues with school boards.

The PIAA is set to meet on Friday at 3 p.m. via Zoom to take a final vote on whether to move forward with fall sports during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. All indications point toward a vote to approve fall sports after PIAA Executive Director Bob Lombardi told the Pennsylvania Senate's Athletic Oversight Committee on Tuesday, "We would like to move forward with sports."

Gov. Tom Wolf stated several times over the past few weeks that he strongly recommends no K-12 sports or recreational sports in Pennsylvania through the rest of 2020. He said it'll be up to the school districts whether they want to play, and he went as far as to say, "Do what you want" in reference to the districts.

School districts throughout the state were required by the PIAA to develop safety plans so coaches and athletes could adhere to guidance provided by the state government during the preseason. Many fall sports teams have been holding voluntary conditioning or practicing sessions since July. There have been cases of athletes testing positive and school districts shutting down athletic facilities to prevent spread of the virus.

The situation might not be as simple as the PIAA approving fall sports and individual school boards doing the same next week, though. The question of liability and insurance has been raised recently. The PIAA has an insurance policy for all schools, and it is paid for by the schools' dues to the PIAA.

The PIAA has "catastrophic insurance" that is good for 10 years from the date of injury to a student-athlete. It has coverage of $5 million per incident with a $25,000 deductible.

The policy, however, does not cover communicable diseases and viral diseases, according to Melissa Mertz, the PIAA's associate executive director.

"The policy doesn't cover absolutely everything, and fortunately it has not been used often," Mertz said. "We reviewed the policy the other day and exempt from it are communicable and viral diseases. We've done a preliminary look at what it would cost to add those and it's pretty high."

Mertz said the PIAA board of directors could discuss the problem Friday, but it might end up being "cost prohibitive" to add to the policy.

Mertz also said schools are welcome to purchase their own coverage regarding COVID-19, but the PIAA's current policy covers all schools.

The fact that PIAA insurance does not cover COVID-19 could become an obstacle for many school boards as they prepare to vote on whether to go forward with fall sports if the PIAA approves the fall seasons on Friday.

Mertz mentioned that the PIAA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, known as SMAC, met on Monday to discuss fall sports. The committee put out a recommendation heading into the PIAA meeting on July 27 that read in part, "Based on currently known information, the Committee believes that STRICT ADHERENCE by schools and teams to their school-adopted plans should provide a reasonably safe environment for athletics."

The committee reaffirmed that stance Monday. The committee members also discussed Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that has been detected recently in some Big Ten Conference athletes who tested positive for COVID-19.

"Nothing changed from their standpoint, and they are solidly behind us as long as schools adhere to their safety guidelines. They feel we can be successful in getting fall sports underway," Mertz said. "We also talked about Myocarditis and how it is very early in trying to understand that disease and diagnosing it. We talked about who is most susceptible and that we don't have a lot of data on it and the long-term effects, but the committee is steadfast in supporting us."

COVID-19 and what it does to student-athletes could also lead to change with PIAA forms.

"We talked about maybe putting COVID-19 on the CIPPE (Comprehensive Initial Pre-participation Physical Evaluation) form," Mertz said. "It wouldn't be on there as a liability waiver but just understanding the effects like we have for cardiac arrests and concussions."

The first day of fall practices, including heat acclimatization for football teams, is set for Monday with the regular season beginning on Aug. 27 for golf, Aug. 31 for girls tennis and Sept. 11 for every other fall sport.

The next few weeks might finally give some clarity to a situation that has been murky over the past five months.

"We've been working non-stop as a board to try to be as flexible as possible," Mertz said. "Things can change very fast, and we've been considering all kinds of plans to make sure we do the best we can to get every sport played in some manner.

"There have been long nights, but all of the effort will be worth it if we can get something out of this fall. Friday is the ultimate decision, and the movement right now is pretty positive."