BLOOMINGTON — Illinois and 15 other states are foregoing playing high school football this fall. Instead, they’re electing to postpone the season to the spring of 2021, due to COVID-19. While a proper safety measure for all involved, it is a severely missed opportunity for many in sports. This is especially true when the Fighting Illini and Chicago Bears are still allowed to play.
IHSA assistant executive director Sam Knox understands the situation, yet expresses disappointment by the outcome. This is even despite a rallying cry from school officials, coaches, players, and parents that Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, IDPH director Dr. Ngozi Ezike, and IHSA officials to let their kids play.
“Our IHSA staff and our schools around the state wanted to play this fall, even if it means starting a bit later,” Knox states. “Maybe September or even early October, but we’re under restrictions [that] simply said we can’t.”
The restrictions Knox mentions came down from Pritzker and Ezike, causing much outrage in the sports community.
Most Illinois high school coaches are not happy seeing high schools in surrounding states playing high school football. However, even with several Zoom meetings a week, they are dealing with these circumstances in different ways.
Holecek: No high school FB ‘just affects the kids so much’
John Holecek is the assistant athletic director and head coach of Loyola Academy in Wilmette. He says it’s more about his players than it about him.
“I think it just affects the kids so much, not just losing the fall football season, but the competition, the motivation,” Holecek said.
He states that he’s trying to keep the kids on track, hoping things will get back to normal.
“The experience of high school football, if you played it, you know, there’s a sense of belonging and team camaraderie,” he adds. “You really can’t really put it into words.”
Racki: Misses coaching more than ever
Tim Racki is the head coach at Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, where he also serves as the dean of students.
Although he enjoys seeing his family more than usual, he misses coaching football more than ever.
“The most challenging thing is losing that structure,” Racki said. “Me, along with coaches everywhere, have a high passion for [football]. It takes away your identity a little bit.”
“You realize how much you love it when it’s taken from you,” Racki adds. “It makes me appreciate it that much more I guess.”
Mixed feelings on Illinois’ handling of the COVID crisis
There are mixed feelings about how Pritzker and Ezike are handling the situation. Moreover, IHSA officials and coaches are not particularly fond of Pritzker’s lack of availability during this entire process.
“Quite honestly, the biggest obstacle has been lack of cooperation or even teamwork from the governor’s office and the IDPH,” Knox states. “[IHSA] director, Craig Anderson, has attempted to schedule multiple meetings with those groups, even going back to last summer, to get this figured out.”
Knox would add that Illinois is the only remaining Midwestern state not playing football this fall is “disappointing.”
“We know that IDPH and the Governor’s office helped us formulate some really good, positive plans and steps,” adds Knox. “We are 100 percent confident that we would follow them.”
Knox adds that IHSA wants kids to do what they love to do – play football, volleyball, etc.
Racki defends Governor’s handling of COVID-19
Racki disagrees, siding with the governor’s handling of the matter at hand.
“When you’re in a position of leadership, you have to make incredibly tough decisions,” Racki said. “I think I empathize with him more than the people who are extremely angry or disappointed. He’s not intentionally out there wanting to cancel high school or youth sports.”
Most high school coaches are likely thinking of the exact opposite opinion. This is especially true when Pritzker’s fellow Democratic governors, such as Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Kentucky’s Andrew Beshear, are allowing high schools to enter play this fall.
“He is doing the best he can with the information that he has,” Racki adds. “It’s really easy to second-guess someone in that position, just like it’s easy to second-guess me when we lose the game on a call that I make or maybe as a school administrator.”
“I’m going to do the best that I can and I know he’s doing the same,” Racki continues. “Do I agree with everything? No, not really, but that’s OK.”
Racki additionally notes that he has no interest in attacking people in positions of leadership.
Should Illinois high schools be playing football?
The impact of the loss of fall pigskin action impacts many schools and conferences across the state. However, there is one difficult question: should Illinois be playing them?
While collegiate and professional athletes are being tested almost daily for the novel coronavirus, high schools and their districts simply do not have the financial resources to accommodate such an undertaking.
While there is much scrutiny on the actual real count of positive cases, IDPH reports over 360,000 cases as of Friday, Oct. 23. Even worse, they do not account for those cases that need count deletion due to surviving the virus.
High school football in Illinois taken hostage
According to the IDPH, football, along with boxing, rugby, lacrosse, hockey, and others, are listed as higher-risk under their sports safety guidance.
Medical experts claim it’s a no-brainer to shut down team sports for the foreseeable future. Rebecca Feinberg, a teaching associate professor at DePaul University, agrees with shutting them down for good reason.
“We are seeing the numbers rise tremendously at the moment,” Feinberg states. “As you can tell, by the fact that 30 different states are on the no-travel list for the state of Illinois,” Feinberg said.
Feinberg states that the spikes should be incredibly problematic.
Funk: ‘No sports unless there’s a vaccine’
Phillip Funk claims there should be no team sports, including football, anytime soon. Funk is an associate professor of virology, also at DePaul.
The only time football would be acceptable, according to Funk? When a vaccine is in place. However, there’s no reasonable expectation when one would be available en masse. There will also be many who will refuse to take the vaccine over health and religious concerns.
“A lot depends on when that vaccine can roll out and how quickly we can get it distributed,” Funk said. “Part of that is there’s still some debate about how long-term immunity is.”
“We’re going to have to do the science to really get a sense of how good the vaccine is,” Funk adds. “Is this going to be a vaccine where you need a shot and later you’re getting the booster? That’s not clear.”
Funk would rather defer to the public health authorities in the meantime.
Meanwhile, high school athletes aren’t allowed to play in the sports — not just football — that has been held hostage by the Illinois state government. That aggravates many coaches, athletes, and parents.
Requests for comments from coaches across Central Illinois were not returned as of press time. This is a developing story.
Jake Leonard, a broadcast media and journalism veteran, is the editor-in-chief of Heartland Newsfeed. Leonard is also GM and program director of Heartland Newsfeed Radio Network, wrestling editor and contributing writer for Ambush Sports, a contributing writer for My Sports Vote and Midwest Sports Network, and a former contributor to Bleacher Report and Overtime Heroics. He resides at home in Nokomis, Ill. with his dog Buster.