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IHSA ban on CPS cross-country runners makes sense — but it’s great the kids will run

A judge ruled with his heart to let runners compete after missing out because of the teachers strike. But the IHSA followed its rules. And there are tough breaks in life.

Jones College Prep cross-country runners filed suit against the Illinois High School Association to compete in state playoffs despite IHSA rules that forced them to miss out because of the teachers strike.
Jones College Prep cross-country runners filed suit against the Illinois High School Association to compete in state playoffs despite IHSA rules that forced them to miss out because of the teachers strike.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The Cook County judge who let Chicago Public Schools runners compete in cross-country sectional races last week, after they missed the first round of the postseason because of the teachers strike, got it wrong.

The Illinois High School Association has appealed the ruling, which means there’s another chance to get it right.

The good news for the athletes is that they will get to compete, after a ruling on Thursday by the Illinois Appellate Court. The other good news, for the IHSA, is the court will hear the appeal next week and decide once and for all if the rules need to be changed.

The association appealed to know, going forward, if its rules need clarification or redoing, Executive Director Craig Anderson told me Wednesday. It needs to remove the precedent set by Cook County Judge Neil H. Cohen’s ruling.

“We just want verification that what the judge did in entering the [temporary restraining order] didn’t have a legal basis,” Anderson said. “To use rules we have within our association, that’s what we did until the judge intervened.”

The IHSA should win its case. There’s no question that the association followed its rules. The Cook County judge last week ruled with his heart.

“I’m tired of adults making decisions that rob children of their childhood and their dreams,” Cohen said. “It isn’t going to hurt the IHSA to let these kids run.”

Maybe Cohen didn’t realize that only five teams and a small number of individuals advance from each sectional to the state meet. Allowing CPS runners to compete meant other runners would be held back from the state championship. The IHSA remedied this by expanding the field. But it shouldn’t have been in that position at all.

And if you start making exceptions now, where do they end? If a team misses a postseason meet because of a car accident en route to the race, should they be allowed to compete in the next round because the circumstances were beyond their control? What about the athlete who has a family emergency on the day of the big race and misses it?

There are tough breaks in life. Missing races because of a strike stinks. But people move on. We are not talking about 8-year-olds but teens on the cusp of adulthood. There’s a life lesson in following the rules, even when it hurts.

The rules here are clear: Once a team misses its first postseason event, the season is a bust. I essentially used those same words 22 years ago when I wrote, for a different newspaper, about a standout Niles North High School cross-country runner who had missed the postseason a year earlier because of a strike.

”If the teachers strike, why can’t others continue to live their lives as normal as possible?” the runner, Robert Breit, said in October 1997.

The answer is straightforward. Illinois high schools set the rules. The IHSA carries them out. If high school principals or athletic directors want to change them, there’s a way to do it. But there was no real effort to rewrite strike rules 22 years ago, and I predict that there will be no effort going forward.

That’s because the rules make sense, not to the dedicated teens who miss out on races, or their parents, but to school administrators and coaches who face work limitations during strikes.

The timing of this strike, in October, coincided with the start of the postseason in many sports. Soccer players and volleyball teams couldn’t compete. A different judge upheld the cross-country runners’ disqualification from the first round of the postseason.

Athletes from Jones College Prep went to court the following week to fight for reinstatement in the postseason once the strike ended.

And Judge Cohen made up new rules, ignoring this: There’s a natural progression in the playoffs at every level of sport and it starts with showing up in the first round in which you are scheduled.

When you let athletes enter a competition midway through the postseason, it can taint the notion of fair play to others.

On Saturday, the IHSA will distribute medals to the top finishers. Athletes who are narrowly edged out by CPS runners would be justified in feeling robbed. So I hope the IHSA will expand the field of medalists, too. The exceptions go on and on.

There are rules that seem bureaucratic or arbitrary at every level in sport — the professional ranks, the Olympics, college and high school. It’s about trying to create a level playing field at the outset. It’s not asking too much for teenagers, their parents and judges to respect it, no matter how much it hurts.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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This column was updated Thursday evening to reflect the Illinois Appellate Court’s decision to hear the case next week, leaving in place Judge Cohen’s order to let the runners compete.