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Lightfoot sends shockwaves with comments on high school basketball

It’s hard to be surprised by anything these days. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s remarks about high school basketball on Monday were stunning.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a press conference at City Hall, Thursday morning, Feb. 4, 2021, in Chicago.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a press conference at City Hall, Thursday morning, Feb. 4, 2021, in Chicago.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

It’s hard to be surprised by anything these days. But Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s comments Monday about high school basketball were shocking.

Thousands of Chicago Public Schools athletes and coaches have been waiting for weeks to get the green light to play. They’ve watched as the rest of the state has started playing again, but they haven’t been told when they can start — or why they haven’t yet.

In stepped Lightfoot, unaware the rest of the state is playing high school basketball and other sports right now. A reporter at a news conference asked Lightfoot why CPS hasn’t started.

“That’s not really our call,” the mayor said. “Obviously, we’re going to follow the guidance of the Illinois State Board of Education, but also the Illinois High School Association. We’ve been anxiously waiting for further guidance from them. As an unrepentant sports fan myself, I’d like to see kids get back. There’s some loosening of the guidelines to let some non-contact sports happen. But . . . as far as I know, we haven’t seen anything that’s specific to, for example, high school basketball. So I’d like to see us move in that direction, but the state really controls the play, no pun intended, on that issue.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health announced Jan. 22 that regions would be allowed to play basketball and other higher-risk sports in Phase 4 of the corona-virus protocols. On Jan. 27, the IHSA started the basketball season, and it announced Monday that CPS will be allowed to play basketball until March 20, one week longer than the rest of the state.

The reporter told Lightfoot that the suburbs were playing sports.

“They are playing some sports,” Lightfoot said. “I’m not aware that they’re playing basketball and other contact sports. And we’re starting to get that geared up here in Chicago. But I thought the question was really specific to things like high school basketball. I’m not aware of that happening. I’ve been watching it pretty closely. But if there is a pathway as allowed by the state, then we will start looking into that ourselves.”

The first high school basketball games in the state took place in Central Illinois in late January. Some Chicago Catholic League schools and suburban schools started playing last week. The Catholic League had a full slate of games scheduled for Monday. More than 60 games were played in the area last week.

Lightfoot has been working on CPS/Chicago Teachers Union labor issues and dealing with a global pandemic, not to mention the everyday issues of running the city. But she clearly has not been following the high school sports issue closely.

Based on Monday’s comments, she seems to believe high school basketball should currently be allowed in CPS. That’s a surprise to Public League coaches and athletes, who have been stuck in limbo for months.

The last statement on sports that CPS provided was Jan. 22, the day Pritzker and the IDPH announced that higher-risk sports such as basketball could be played when regions reach Phase 4.

“[CPS Sports Administration] is working closely with our public health officials to determine if we are able to offer these activities and will provide an update as soon as possible,” CPS sports director David Rosengard wrote in an email to school principals that day. “Until a decision has been made, practice may not begin on Monday, Jan. 25.”

Some Public League coaches expressed shock at Lightfoot’s statements Monday but were not willing to go on the record with their reactions. It wasn’t just Lightfoot’s ignorance of the situation that surprised them — most had been led to believe they were not back on the court because of the labor dispute.

More than 115 CPS coaches from multiple sports held a teleconference Sunday to discuss what to do about the delay. When news broke that CPS and the CTU were working on a tentative agreement, the group decided to “table things” and see what developed.

So, do Lightfoot’s comments mean basketball and other sports will get started once Lightfoot is up to speed on the IDPH and IHSA decisions? Or is the holdup somewhere else in CPS? And why hasn’t anyone informed the mayor about the situation? Why didn’t anyone step in to correct her and update her during the news conference?

Lightfoot spokeswoman Jordan Troy said CPS will have an update on sports, including basketball, this week. CPS did not respond to a request for comment.