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PIAA’s Lombardi: It’s worth attempting to play fall sports

PIAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi laid out the reasons he felt fall interscholastic sports could move forward in a nearly 20-minute address to the Pennsylvania Athletic Oversight Committee on Tuesday morning.

The leader of Pennsylvania’s school sports governing body said Gov. Tom Wolf’s staff has not presented the PIAA with evidence supporting its recommendation to suspend interscholastic and recreational sports until Jan. 1. Conversely, Lombardi said in a random sampling of pre-participation screenings at voluntary workouts this summer, there have been just four positive COVID-19 tests of more than 30,000 screenings.

“Although we cannot guarantee that problems will not arise, we believe we have developed a reasonably safe environment for competition at the interscholastic level,” Lombardi testified to the Athletic Oversight Committee. “We believe based on information currently known to us, it is worth at least attempting to pursue a fall sports program.”

Although the official decision about the fate of fall sports will not come until Friday’s PIAA Board of Directors meeting, it was clear from Lombardi’s testimony Tuesday the PIAA has every intention of moving forward with fall athletics. Lombardi did say member schools are “requesting protection from legal challenges and the administration to provide legal immunity from COVID-19.”

The PIAA has already begun looking into if insurance coverage is available to the schools. But Lombardi said the cost of the premium and the deductible, based on preliminary information, may be cost prohibitive.

“We understand the governor would like to eliminate the risk of the spread of COVID-19 wherever possible, and any type of sporting competition does bring people together,” Lombardi said. “But their staff has no medical or research reason that would suggest that participation in interscholastic sports inherently increases that risk.

“And since we have provided you with actual data from voluntary workouts for the past eight weeks, we would like to move forward with the starting of fall sports.”

Wolf made his recommendation in a press conference two weeks ago, and doubled down on his recommendation last Thursday during another press conference. But he has also reinforced it is a recommendation only, and not a mandate.

During her press briefing Tuesday morning, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said neither she nor Wolf would come back with a mandate sports not be played should the PIAA Board of Directors vote Friday to move forward with a fall season.

Lombardi laid out the framework of a plan the PIAA has developed to truncate its postseason tournaments in order to finish out the fall season before the cold and flu season run rampant. The plan involves taking just the champions from each districts – as is already done in football – to shorten the state tournaments in the PIAA’s other fall sports.

“We would like to capture competition in the optimal fall weather when outside activities may be held, providing a safer setting than enclosed facilities,” Lombardi said.

In his opening statement, Lombardi requested help from the Athletic Oversight Committee and the administration to adjust the number of people allowed at indoor gatherings. Currently, there is a limit of 25 people at indoor gatherings.

Lombardi said the PIAA’s two fall indoor sports – girls volleyball and boys and girls water polo – would not be able to operate under those parameters. He asked the parameters be adjusted for sports, allowing for 25% of the capacity of the gym or pool to be the limit, allowing for support personnel to be in attendance with the teams.

Lombardi also expressed his disagreement with the governor’s no spectator mandate for athletics, which was met with agreement from various members of the oversight committee.

“We believe the presence of limited spectators, especially immediate family members, are important,” Lombardi said. “If the (maximum) is two family members, we would attempt to work with that. However, parents, guardians and grandparents need to be in attendance to see their children perform. From a health and safety standpoint, if there was any type of injury or trauma to an athlete, they would be available to assist in the treatment and assessment of their child. In almost all venues, they would be able to spread out to permit social distancing.”

In the Pennsylvania Athletic Oversight Committee, Lombardi and the PIAA found not only a sympathetic ear, but one a governmental body which seemed in lockstep with the PIAA’s plans to move forward.

“I think in general it’s always easy to say no,” said Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mount Pleasant. “It’s easy to make a one-size-fits-all approach. But our communities and our kids deserve more than that. We should at least try to give these kids some sense of normal into the fall in both the classroom and on the playing field.”

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