MCCOOK — More than 500 parents and student athletes gathered in the parking lot of a sports complex in southwest suburban McCook Sunday to pressure Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker to allow high school sports this fall.
They wore their school athletic gear and held signs that said “Bring Back Sports” and “Flip on the Friday Night Lights,” in opposition to the governor’s decision to delay some sports till spring in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Parents and students shared how they missed the normalcy of practices and games. They also expressed anger that neighboring states were allowing sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Indiana is allowing high school football. On Sept. 3, Michigan lifted restrictions that allowed the state athletic association to reinstate football and other fall sports.
Meanwhile, parents accused Pritzker of overanalyzing the potential risks instead of making a decision.
“Why theorize when we can simply look at others who had the guts to advocate for the kids and shown they can get it done?,” said parent Dave Ruggles, who emceed the rally.
Pritzker’s office did not respond to a request for comment Sunday. Earlier this summer, the Illinois High School Association, which runs state public sports announced high contact sports would shift to spring and summer. Low contact sports like tennis and cross country are still happening this fall, but with a shorter season.
On Friday, IHSA confirmed it sent a letter to the governor asking for the power to decide whether to resume high school athletics and indicated it could bring back some sports this fall if approved but said there have been no discussions or timelines discussed yet.
In an interview last week with the Aurora Beacon-News, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson said, “We understand there is a strong desire by many for high school sports to resume on an accelerated timeline, but we also remain respectful of the fact that our state’s conservative approach has helped Illinois achieve lower COVID-19 positivity rates.”
The lack of fall athletics is especially difficult for high school seniors who often use the summer and fall to show off their skills to college recruiters, which could derail scholarship opportunities they’ve spent their whole lives working toward.
“My mom has always said travel soccer was an investment for my college,” said Kaylie Dahms a senior soccer player at Plainfield Central High School. Between injuries and COVID-19, she hasn’t really had a chance to play a full spring season since freshman year and had to send her freshman highlight reel to colleges for consideration.
She says she’s now competing for slots with students from other states who are able to play.
“Whatever I get I’m going to have to take, which is sad,” Dahms said. “I had a lot of dream schools and top schools and right now they’re like ‘Sorry, we can’t do anything.'”
She says schools have told her they can hopefully come see her play in January, but she said she was hoping to commit to a school before the end of 2020 and worries COVID-19 cases could be higher and prevent those visits.
Kaleb Clousing, a senior at Wheaton Warrenville South High School in Wheaton, said he decided last month to commit to Grand Valley State University in Michigan to play football, though it’s possible he could’ve gotten more offers this fall.
“But not knowing, I wanted to commit to Grand Valley because I knew I had that and the opportunity could go and I wanted to take what I had,” he said.
Many students say they’re still traveling to neighboring states through their private sports teams to play, a welcome bit of normalcy.
While the rally was billed as a push to bring back high school sports, it had a political tinge, too.
Parents railed against Pritzker for keeping schools and sports shut down. A few women were collecting signatures for a petition to recall the governor. Ruggles, the parent who emceed the rally, used his platform to argue leaders are arbitrarily deciding when people could gather during the pandemic.
“We get it,” he said as the crowd cheered. “The virus apparently doesn’t infect protestors, looters and people who go to four-day long funerals for political figures. For those issues it’s too important to worry about the spread of the virus. But for the issues of educating our children and things that are important to us, not so much.”
But for the students, the politics weren’t the issue. They just want time on the field.
“Playing as a team, it definitely brings joy,” said Waubonsie Valley senior Bryan Grimaldo. “Training by yourself, it’s just lonely. And with all of this going on it’s like, “Do I even want to try anymore? Do I even want to play anymore? I have no one to push me to be better.”