PIAA delays fall sports for 2 weeks to talk with Gov. Wolf, state legislature

Friday, August 7, 2020 | 2:38 PM

The PIAA heard “thousands of voices,” so it’s trying to save fall sports.

The board voted Friday to delay the start of fall sports for two weeks — until Aug. 24 — giving the PIAA executive staff time to talk further with Gov. Tom Wolf, his administration, state legislators and others.

PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said his office was “inundated” with emails and phone calls in the past 24 hours, since Wolf strongly recommended delaying all youth sports until Jan. 1 over covid-19 concerns. The PIAA hopes to reach an agreement with Wolf to keep fall seasons in place, but Lombardi didn’t rule out moving ahead without him.

“We would like to have full support,” Lombardi said. “However, it was a recommendation. It wasn’t a mandate and it wasn’t an order. If it was an order, we probably wouldn’t be having the discussion we’re having here.”

The PIAA board met Thursday in executive session and reconvened Friday.

In a statement, the PIAA said its board had “heard the thousands of voices of student-athletes, parents, coaches and community leaders that have contacted us,” and agreed that “the governor’s strong recommendation to delay sports … has a potential negative impact on the students’ physical, social, emotional and mental health.”

The decision to delay comes almost on the eve of football season. Heat acclimatization for football was scheduled to begin Monday, and practices for all sports would’ve started Aug. 17. Those now move to Aug. 24. Teams can continue voluntary offseason workouts until then.

The schedule change also delays the first competition dates for some WPIAL sports. The first golf matches move to Aug. 27, and girls tennis now starts Aug. 31. The first football games statewide will be Sept. 11-12, the weekend the WPIAL had already picked for its season openers.

The PIAA also sponsors soccer, cross country, field hockey, girls volleyball and water polo in the fall.

The PIAA received “probably 7,500 emails, and the number of phone calls we received are enough to shut our phone system down,” Lombardi said. “And we’re not the only ones getting it.”

The PIAA also received feedback from a number of state legislators who were hearing from constituents, Lombardi said. Among them, House majority leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Bellefonte) sent an open letter to the PIAA, urging the board to “stand firm” for fall sports.

Support from lawmakers could be valuable.

“They would like to have discussion with us to see if they can be of assistance, or what we think we can do to get fall sports started for student athletes,” Lombardi said. “And if we can’t, what can we do to hopefully have three sports seasons in some fashion before the end of the school year.”

The PIAA didn’t share any details about shifting fall sports to the spring, if needed.

Two board members voted against the two-week delay: Jonathan Bauer, who represents the Pa. Principals Association, and Hopewell principal Michael Allison, the president of the principals’ association. Wolf’s recommendation was supported by the state departments of education and health.

One week ago, fall sports seemed safe.

The PIAA Sports Medicine Committee agreed unanimously in late July that fall sports could resume safely. The PIAA board took that advice and voted last week to start fall sports as scheduled. Wolf’s recommendation Thursday to delay all sports until January caught the PIAA by surprise.

“We certainly want support of administration,” Lombardi said. “But golf, tennis and cross country are being carried on in every community at public and private facilities throughout the commonwealth. Why don’t we get the same opportunity?

“If it’s one or two or three sports that may be causing some angst or heartburn for some folks, then let’s have that discussion, so we can address those issues.”

The two-week delay wasn’t the outcome coaches and athletes wanted, but was better than many alternatives. Norwin girls soccer coach Lauren Karcher said the PIAA decision to stay the course is underscored by positivity.

“I think the best word to use would be hopeful,” Karcher said. “Hopeful for a season, for the kids to have an outlet to do something they love after all this uncertainty. Of course we want safety to be the top priority, and with the plan Norwin has developed and all the coaches and teams have been following, it is going well.

“Just being back together again, you can see how much the kids need it.”

In its statement Friday, the PIAA argued that the “unintended consequences” of canceling fall sports should be considered. It also reiterated its belief that fall sports can be conducted safely if schools strictly adhere to their health and safety plans.

“I’m glad that the PIAA has had a hard stance on this and has not just buckled with Wolf’s recommendation,” Deer Lakes boys soccer coach Dan Yates said. “First and foremost, player safety is the most important part of everything and everyone has to agree with that. … But their health and social interaction and their well being are also paramount in this situation.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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