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Mitch Rupert on sports: Decision needs to be made for fall

Making life-altering decisions is arduous. The weight of the process is unbearable. It’s the cost of being in charge. It’s the price to pay for power.

On two fronts in the last week, the people charged with making the decisions about fall high school sports have played ping pong with the responsibility. Because of the obfuscation by Gov. Tom Wolf and the response by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to delay the start of fall sports two weeks, the rest of the state is left in limbo.

What transpired late last week between Wolf and the PIAA should be embarrassing for both parties. PIAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi has said multiple times over the last few months of Board of Directors meetings his organization has been in contact with the governor’s office as it has hacked through the underbrush of the COVID-19 pandemic to determine whether or not fall sports can be played.

But it would have to be believed if the two were working together in even a cursory manner over the last few months, the PIAA would not have been “blindsided,” as CBS 21’s Ryan Eldredge reported, by Wolf’s recommendation last Thursday to not play high school or youth sports in Pennsylvania until at least Jan. 1, 2021. What this tells us is one of two things: Either PIAA leadership was bending the truth — at best — about just how much it has been working with the state, or the governor’s office went rogue despite previous conversations with the PIAA and gave its own directives without first discussing them with Lombardi and his staff.

Neither option is acceptable. And now, entire school districts and conferences have no idea what their next step should be. Players and coaches are left with zero answers for their endless questions.

We’ve reached a point where a decision needs to be made one way or another. And as the leaders of the state (Wolf) and the state’s high school sports governing body (Lombardi), someone needs to grab the bull by the horns and come to a decision. Until now, all which has been received has been guidance. Guidance carries only so far. Eventually, declarative statements must be made. It is the most fundamental job of our leaders, whether those decisions are popular or not. And don’t be fooled, a decision to either play or not play is going to irritate at least a segment of people throughout the state.

The PIAA’s directives have come from an understanding one-size-fits-all rules about returning to play don’t make sense. Philadelphia has been affected far differently by the novel coronavirus than Williamsport and its surrounding areas. By allowing the individual school districts to determine which is the best course of action to take regarding fall athletics, the PIAA is allowing local data to rule the decision-making process, as opposed to statewide data.

The premise of the PIAA’s guidance has always been based on the information it was provided by Wolf’s office, as well as the Departments of Health and Education. By following their lead and placing the final decisions in the hands of the school districts, the PIAA has abated its liability should something tragic happen as athletes return to play.

The governor followed none of those decision-making processes, instead throwing a singular blanket over everybody. By closing his midday press conference with a walk-off recommendation of no sports, and by later emphasizing it was merely a recommendation in a released statement, Wolf also abated his liability and his responsibility and put the proverbial ball back in the PIAA’s court.

It’s clear nobody wants to be the one to make the decision which could lead to a tragedy in our litigious society. To use the word tragedy may be overdramatizing the situation. But with no COVID-19 vaccine available to the public, there is still an inherent risk to gathering in large groups, and tragedy is still possible. We cannot have discussions about safety without acknowledging all of the possible outcomes of moving forward with a fall sports season, including everything potentially going off without a hitch.

But we also must ask, if nobody in a position of leadership is willing to make the decision to play knowing tragedy is on the table, should we re-think the necessity of fall sports? What are we gaining? What are we losing? Do the rewards outweigh the risks?

Pennsylvania state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Fulton, said Tuesday during a press conference on the issue there have always been inherent risks to participating in sports, especially contact and collision sports like football. The decisions about whether the rewards outweigh the risks have always been on the individual families and players and he sees no difference in the choice to play during the COVID-19 pandemic. If the powers that be determine it is safe enough to play, each family can then make their own decision as to whether or not to take that risk, Topper said.

The PIAA should be commended for doing everything in its power to this point to make sure there can be a safe fall sports season. It will never be able to mitigate every ounce of risk no matter how many guidelines it produces. But its own protocols and those produced by the individual school districts have given student-athletes a safe opportunity to practice. Schools which have experienced positive COVID-19 cases — or even a threat of them — have shut down offseason workouts immediately to successfully protect against an outbreak. So why shouldn’t those same safety protocols be good enough to at least try to play?

The governor is testing whether the PIAA and its 32-member voting panel has the mettle to go against his recommendation. The PIAA has been resolute in its belief, through its own research and conversations, it is safe enough to at least try to have some semblance of a fall sports season. It has not allowed itself to kowtow to the decisions of surrounding states to move fall sports to the spring. It has not allowed its decision to be influenced by choices of Pennsylvania collegiate conferences to suspend sports until the end of the calendar year.

The governor’s haymaker of a recommendation last week is a test of the the PIAA’s conviction in the decisions its made to this point. The next volley of this ping pong match is squarely on Lombardi and the PIAA. And it needs to be the final volley.

We need leaders more than ever in a time crisis, and one needs to step forward right now and make a final decision because players, coaches and schools deserve better. Those charged with the responsibility of leading them need to realize their obligation and end this unnecessary petulance.

Whatever the decision may be, make it and let us all move forward.

Mitch Rupert can be reached at 570-326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at mrupert@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Mitch_Rupert.

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