State Rep. Mike Reese, Republican lawmakers take on governor on high school sports

Tuesday, August 11, 2020 | 7:02 PM

A recommendation from Gov. Tom Wolf can easily turn into a mandate, said state Rep. Mike Reese, who wants the Legislature to act before that happens with youth sports.

The Westmoreland County Republican announced legislation Tuesday that would leave decisions about high school sports in the hands of local school boards and school administrators. It comes six days after Wolf’s administration said interscholastic and recreational sports should be postponed until Jan. 1, a recommendation that threatens fall sports statewide.

“Right now, the governor said these are recommendations, but obviously we’ve heard that before with the administration,” Reese said. “Within a week or so, it’s a new rule that folks must follow. We’re trying to get ahead of that.”

In his opinion, a one-size-fits-all approach to fall sports doesn’t work in a state that’s vastly different from one region to another and has seen varying levels of covid-19 infections.

“The decision should be left at the local school district level with good advice coming from the PIAA on how to make sure players are safe,” he said. “There might be some parts of the state where certain sports might not be able to happen. That might just be the reality of it. But each individual school district should be able to make that decision.”

An email sent to the governor’s office late Tuesday seeking a response was not immediately returned.

The PIAA, which wants the governor to reconsider, has found some allies in the General Assembly. A number of state legislators have issued statements in favor of fall sports.

Reese and state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, were among 10 Republican lawmakers who gathered Tuesday in Harrisburg to announce two pieces of legislation. The second bill, by Topper, would essentially grant high school students the equivalent of a redshirt year offered by colleges.

The bills have support from the education committee chairman, Reese said.

Topper, who coaches football at Bedford, criticized the governor for changing his guidance over the summer. In June, Wolf’s administration required school boards to create and implement health-and-safety plans for covid-19 as guidelines for returning to play. Those plans are now in place.

“We told them, if you wear your mask, you social distance at meetings, split your time in the weight room … if you follow these protocols, you’ll have the opportunity to play,” Topper said. “To now come back to them and say you did everything right, but we still don’t have the will to let that happen.”

A Mt. Pleasant native, Reese is particularly interested in high school sports as a member of the PIAA Athletic Oversight Committee. The committee includes three state representatives and three state senators.

Along with deciding whether to play games, Reese said local districts also should decide whether spectators are allowed at those contests. That contradicts Wolf’s current ban on spectators.

“The idea of a blanket statement that there can be no parents watching football players or soccer players in a stadium that might hold 5,000 or 6,000 people just seems kind of silly,” Reese said. “If they can come up with a way to allow people to safely watch these games, they should do so.”

As it stands now, to play sports, school districts must go against the advice of the state departments of Health and Education. That could leave some districts concerned about their legal liability.

PIAA teams are scheduled to start practice Monday, Aug. 24. The PIAA board reconvenes Aug. 21.

“School districts already have some level of immunity as a local government,” Reese said. “Don’t get me wrong. I understand exactly what they’re saying, and I would have that same concern. That’s why I think if we pass this bill, if we quantify it in law, it further empowers these local districts to make decisions.”

The legislation was announced on the same day the Big Ten decided it wouldn’t play football this fall. PIAA and WPIAL administrators have insisted college and high school athletics face different challenges, a stance with which Reese agreed.

However, he also pointed out those universities were able to make their own choices.

“If they looked at their schedule, look at their players, their coaches, their travel and decided that wasn’t the best approach for them, God bless them,” Reese said. “That’s fine. That’s them making a decision. Not government making a decision for them.”

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

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