In football terms, it’s fourth down.

Something has to give when the PIAA board of directors decides Friday whether to continue with plans to sponsor fall sports for most high schools in Pennsylvania.

PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi declined via email to speculate on his confidence level that the board of directors — a 32-member group of representatives from the organization’s 12 districts across the commonwealth — would support his assessment that fall sports such as football, soccer, cross-country, and field hockey should be staged, with modifications to account for COVID-19 concerns.

But before a hearing of the state legislature’s PA Athletic Oversight Committee on Tuesday, Lombardi made clear his contention that the rewards of athletic competition outweigh the risks in the current environment.

“We believe that because of the important benefits that can be derived from participation in interscholastic athletics, we believe that it is, at least based on the information currently known to us and the advice we are being provided from many of our schools and medical advisers, it is worth at least attempting to pursue a fall sports program,” Lombardi said in his opening statement to the committee in Harrisburg.

The PIAA board of directors’ virtual meeting comes as questions continue to swirl concerning the path forward for educators and athletic administrators during the coronavirus outbreak.

The Philadelphia Public League, Friends Schools League and Del Val League have postponed fall sports. The Philadelphia Catholic League and other leagues in Southeastern Pennsylvania have delayed the start of fall seasons, awaiting further guidance from the PIAA as well as local health and school officials.

Many school districts in Southeastern Pennsylvania have announced plans for virtual-only learning, at least to start the year. The Big Ten Conference, which includes Penn State, has postponed fall sports.

Lombardi and others involved in high school athletics have pushed back against the “strong recommendation” jointly issued by the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education on Aug. 6 that school-sponsored and recreational youth sports be postponed until Jan. 1.

That guidance from the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf noted that the recommendation was “not an order or mandate” and that decisions regarding sports should be made by local school district officials.

Lombardi and others have indicated that if local districts are to make the decision on sports, then the PIAA should be permitted to create the framework for regular-season and postseason play.

St. Joseph's Prep won the PIAA Class 6A football title at HersheyPark Stadium on Dec. 7. The PIAA board of directors is expected to decide Friday whether to proceed with plans to stage fall sports and, if the games are a go, to outline a format for state championships.
Bob Williams For The inquirer
St. Joseph's Prep won the PIAA Class 6A football title at HersheyPark Stadium on Dec. 7. The PIAA board of directors is expected to decide Friday whether to proceed with plans to stage fall sports and, if the games are a go, to outline a format for state championships.

Several coaches have noted that interscholastic sports are a voluntary activity and that parents who regard the risk created by COVID-19 as too high can withdraw their children from participation.

But it’s not clear that a majority of the board of directors will vote to proceed with fall sports, given heightened liability concerns that likely would be raised by the decision to, in effect, disregard “strong recommendations” from the departments of health and education.

In his testimony Tuesday, Lombardi noted that schools have asked the PIAA about protection from legal challenges. Lombardi said that the organization contacted its insurance carrier and that “preliminary information I have received may indicate that this type of coverage is cost prohibitive.”

Lombardi said that the Wolf administration recommended against fall sports without hard data to back up its guidance. Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine has said the recommendations were aligned with information used by many college conferences, including the Big Ten, to postpone athletic competition.

Downingtown East fans getting ready for the showdown between undefeated East and undefeated Downingtown West at Kottmeyer Stadium last October. The PIAA board of directors is expected to decide Friday whether to proceed with plans to stage fall sports and, if the games are a go, to outline a format for state championships.
KRISTON JAE BETHEL / For The Inquirer
Downingtown East fans getting ready for the showdown between undefeated East and undefeated Downingtown West at Kottmeyer Stadium last October. The PIAA board of directors is expected to decide Friday whether to proceed with plans to stage fall sports and, if the games are a go, to outline a format for state championships.

Lombardi said the PIAA has gathered preliminary data from member schools that have done pre-screening during voluntary workouts this summer. Lombardi said that in one random sampling of 10,389 athletes, just one tested positive for the coronavirus and that in another random sampling of 19,911, only three tested positive.

“While 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.