Should School Sports Wait Until January? Gov. Wolf and GOP Lawmakers Disagree.

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By Patrick deHahn

August 7, 2020

While the Democratic governor’s recent comments are merely a recommendation for local sports, Republicans quickly chimed in with their opposition. 

Gov. Tom Wolf’s recommendation that youth sports not start back up again until next year have ignited a firestorm across the state.

“We ought to do everything we can to defeat that virus,” he said in a press conference on Thursday. “So any time we get together for any reason, that’s a problem, because it makes it easier for that virus to spread. So the guidance from us, recommendation, is that we don’t do any sports until January 1st.”

He later clarified his point in a statement: “The administration is providing this strong recommendation and not an order or mandate. As with deciding whether students should return to in-person classes, remote learning or a blend of the two this fall, school administrators and locally elected school boards should make decisions on sports.”

While the Democratic governor’s comments are merely a recommendation for local sports, Republicans quickly chimed in with their opposition. 

“For reasons beyond understanding, the governor waited until practices have already started, equipment has already been purchased, fees have already been paid, and dreams of a return to normalcy have already been formed by athletes and families alike,” said Jason Grottsman, a spokesperson for House Rep. Kerry Benninghoff and Pennsylvania House Republicans.

On Friday, Benninghoff sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), asking them to “stand firm” on their decision to continue with fall sports. 

The PIAA board announced Friday afternoon that mandatory fall sports activities are on hold until its next meeting on Aug. 21. The association hopes to use that time to discuss the matter further with Gov. Wolf. Voluntary workouts can continue in the meantime.

The board issued a statement that said it wanted Wolf and agencies under him “to partner with us and work collaboratively to further discuss fall sports,” and hoped for “insight and discussion” from state lawmakers.

“It is clear to PIAA, the unintended consequences of canceling fall sports need to be further reviewed,” the association’s statement said. 

The group maintains fall sports can be conducted safely. 

Numerous Republican lawmakers have stated that not allowing sports would be a disappointment for students striving for college or pro sport careers.

“Keeping people safe is important; however, the governor’s own rules allow outdoor gatherings every day,” state Rep. Torren Ecker (R-193) said in a statement. “I guess the rules are different when it is inside the gates of a high school stadium. This is yet another example of the governor’s double standard and moving the goalposts, much like what we have seen the past few months.”

But coronavirus cases continue to spread across the state while testing lags behind. The PA Department of Health reported an additional 758 cases of coronavirus across the state on Friday.

State Rep. Chris Rabb (D-200) backed the governor in a tweet: “Good! Postpone them indefinitely! My own 14 y/o athlete isn’t thrilled about my public (& parental) stance, but I want ALL student-athletes safe, rich & poor alike!”

It’s difficult to definitively state the risk of either contracting and spreading coronavirus in youth sports. Some athletic summer camps in Illinois, Texas, and Wisconsin have been forced to close due to reported contact with COVID-19 or positive test results. In fact, Penn State already dealt with positive cases among players during their summer session in late July. 

“We don’t really have good head-to-head data about which activities would confer greater versus less risk of transmission,” Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia pediatric infectious diseases specialist Dr. Susan Coffin told the PhillyVoice.

While kids may largely suffer only mild cases of COVID, it’s still a risk that they contract and pass along the deadly virus to family, elderly community members, or at-risk adults. More than 97,000 cases were reported during the last two weeks of July alone, according to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention data.

Dr. Coffin added, “Really, it’s all about what you can do to lower your risk.”

The PIAA has developed health and safety plans for school sports—including banning spectators at games—and the prospect of ending them for the coming months comes just as teams are starting to prepare for the fall season.

According to the board’s statement, another concern is that delaying sports will have a “potential negative impact on the students’ physical, social, emotional and mental health.”

In fact, a recent study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found that the spring shutdown of Wisconsin high school sports contributed to symptoms of depression and anxiety in two-thirds of high school athletes. 

Some Pennsylvania schools have already decided to forgo sports this fall, and some high school leagues had also previously delayed the start of their fall seasons.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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