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PIAA hopes to create dialogue with governor over next 2 weeks

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf shook up the commonwealth’s high school sporting world Thursday when, at the end of his press conference and before he answered any potential follow-up questions, he recommended there be no sports until Jan. 1, 2021 because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The PIAA offered its rebuttal Friday — sort of.

The PIAA, the state’s high school sports governing body, announced Friday afternoon following a Board of Directors executive session that the start of the fall sports seasons would be pushed from Monday, Aug. 10 to Aug. 24, which the board voted 30-2 to approve.

During these next two weeks PIAA Executive Director Bob Lombardi said the board will be trying to create a dialogue with the governor and his staff members toward safely moving forward with the high school sports season.

“Our intention is to give as many opportunities to the student-athletes as possible,” Lombardi said during a 30-minute teleconference with the media.

When asked if, after two weeks, the PIAA would still move forward despite the governor not changing his mind about his recommendation, Lombardi remained non-committal. It was evident, however, that he and the board are hoping it does not come down to that.

“I don’t believe the board was ready for that and that’s why were pausing for two weeks,” Lombardi said. “We paused for two weeks and two weeks is the target to start fall activities. Over the next two weeks we will do our darndest to meet with as many stakeholders as we can, including the general assembly and hopefully the staff of the Department of Health, the Department of Education and the governor’s office and see if we can collaborate and work together.”

The PIAA, as well as all those associated with high school sports, was blindsided by Wolf’s comments Thursday. Wolf was answering a question about no spectators being allowed at high school events when he offered his blanket recommendation and, without any follow up, confusion and frustration reigned throughout Pennsylvania over the next 24 hours.

Lombardi estimated the PIAA alone received 7,500 emails from parents, grandparents, coaches and student-athletes voicing their concerns. The PIAA received so many phone calls that their phone lines went down. Some have argued the PIAA is has not been firm in its decision-making, but Lombardi disagreed.

“I don’t think the board is kicking the can down the road at all. They’re trying to get as much information as possible. This announcement was made (Thursday) so in a little more than 24 hours you’re asking our Board of Directors to make a decision that could negatively impact hundreds of thousands of student-athletes and the board takes that very seriously. By buying a couple weeks to get as much information as possible from those groups is very wise.”

The PIAA recently announced that fall sports would begin as scheduled Aug. 10 after providing safety protocol guidance and receiving the green lights from its Sports Medicine Advisory Board. Wolf making his announcement Thursday altered those plans, but the goal remains the same.

“As an athletic association we’re giving our best efforts to advocate or our student-athletes and their families and their communities,” Lombardi said. “What’s comforting is the amount of intensity, emotion and vigor that people responded with. It said that this is a very important piece of the daily life of the student-athlete and has some real ramifications from the emotional, social and mental well-being perspective. They are pretty intense and people are speaking from the heart. We have to give our best effort to see what we can get accomplished.”

Lombardi pointed to various sports being played throughout the summer in Pennsylvania without any COVID-19 issues. Baseball, softball, golf, tennis, volleyball, soccer, field hockey and wrestling tournaments all have been held. Some overnight camps also have conducted business.

Several times in all those sports, out-of-state athletes have been included. That is not the case with high school athletics. What Lombardi, the PIAA and so many others are wondering is if those sports can be played in the summer than why can high school sports this fall be played?

“I believe that our schools have done a fabulous job at updating their plans, Everything they’ve been asked to do, they’ve done and the parents and guardians have helped them try and stay safe,” Lombardi said. “They could really use the same opportunity as recreational sports.”

Sports such as golf, tennis and cross country already are essentially socially-distanced activities, so Lombardi also wondered why Wolf’s recommendation was a blanket statement on all sports.

“Coming out with a general statement that was issued I don’t see how golf, tennis and cross country that also are being carried on in every community at public and private facilities around the commonwealth, if they are going off safely so why don’t we get the same opportunity?” Lombardi said. “That’s part of the discussion. If it’s one or two or three sports that maybe are causing some angst for some folks, let’s have that discussion so we can address those issues if they are of substance than we can possibly have them going forward.”

While it is obvious the PIAA hopes to receive the governor’s approval the door was left open that it could pursue fall athletics without his blessing as well.

“This was a recommendation. It was not a mandate and not an order,” Lombardi said. “If it was an order we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion right now.”

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