In a match-up between politics and public health, bet on football every time | Fletcher McClellan

(Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

Politics and public health clashed again in this crazy, COVID year.

Fletcher McClellan (Capital-Star file)

This time, the issue was whether Pennsylvania secondary schools should conduct fall sports competition. The winner? Politics, so far.

Earlier this month, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a “strong recommendation” that schools postpone fall sports until January 1, 2021 at the earliest.

Whether the contests involve contact or not, sports attract clusters of people – players, coaches, officials, support personnel, parents, and fans – and risk violating state health and safety guidelines in combating COVID-19, argued the governor.

Though the Commonwealth has done better than most states have in containing the spread of the coronavirus, 600-800 Pennsylvanians contracted the virus daily in the month of August.

Wolf stopped short of commanding an end to fall 2020 sports, telling the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) and individual school districts “to do what they want.”

Last Friday, the PIAA executive board, by a 25-5 vote, gave the green light to its 1400 member schools to participate in fall varsity sports.

Ultimate decisions over whether to play fall sports in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic rest with school districts, most of which compete in athletic conferences.

Some leagues and schools chose not to participate this fall. The list includes the Philadelphia Public League and individual districts in Harrisburg and Reading.

Athletes and parents rally for school sports in Harrisburg

Most conferences are going ahead with fall sports, delaying practices and competition until September.

One wonders how much the politics of interscholastic sports had to do with the PIAA decision.

The PIAA board of governors is dominated by public school representatives, most from suburban and rural districts. Nearly all members of the board are male, and most are current or former coaches.

Obviously, this is a group who believes athletic competition is good for students.

There may be additional concerns as well.

Public (or “boundary”) schools have complained about unfair competition from private, parochial, and charter (“non-boundary”) schools that can recruit student-athletes. The grievances intensified after the PIAA admitted Philadelphia public and Catholic schools a dozen years ago.

In 2019, superintendents of public schools proposed creation of separate public and private school championships. Though private and charter schools made up 20 percent of PIAA member schools, they won 56% of state football championships and 75 percent of state basketball titles in the 2016-18 period.

With reports of parents looking at private and cyber-charter schools for public health, safety, or educational reasons – even moving to other states – PIAA representatives might have concluded that opening fall sports provides an incentive for students to attend brick-and-mortar public schools in the Commonwealth.

Nevertheless, state authorities, the PIAA, and school districts are taking a big risk.

While it did not disagree with the PIAA decision, the organization’s sports medicine advisory group shared its concerns with the executive board.

Legal counsel for the PIAA, as well as from school districts across the state, issued warnings about liability claims when student-athletes come down with the virus.

Voting against the board motion to approve fall sports were representatives from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the Pennsylvania Principals Association.

Unfortunately, there are communities that discourage mask-wearing and social distancing.

In addition, some school districts may not have the resources to institute health precautions for athletics over a long period, especially as they are coping with the complexities of hybrid instruction.

Even if schools, teams, and parents impose a strict prevention regime, the target population may not comply. Teenagers will engage in risky behavior because they are teenagers.

Fifteen states, including Delaware and Maryland, postponed football season until the spring, as has the Big Ten conference in college football.

But this is Pennsylvania – home of the Nittany Lions, Panthers, Eagles, Steelers, and the Big 33. The birthplace of Unitas, Montana, Marino, Capelletti, Dorsett, Ham, Bednarik, McCoy, and Parsons.

After Wolf offered his recommendation, Republicans in the state Legislature – who have fought the governor tooth-and-nail over his use of emergency power during the pandemic – moved ahead on bills giving school districts exclusive authority to decide whether to participate in fall interscholastic sports.

Students, parents, and coaches rallied at the Capitol in support of “Let Our Kids Play in PA.”

Who can blame them? It’s been a long six months.

The coronavirus denied spring student-athletes their time to shine.

People are hurting. People want to be with other people  And nothing brings a community together better than successful high school athletics, whatever the sport.

To be honest, we could all use a break from politics. Sadly, despite our longing to return to fall tradition, COVID-19 remains undefeated.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.