The group providing key advice in IHSA's effort to bring back sports

  • Naperville North field hockey coach Monica Lodge checks the temperature of sophomore lacrosse player Gautami Palthepu as part of the IHSA's Stage 1 return-to-play guidelines.

      Naperville North field hockey coach Monica Lodge checks the temperature of sophomore lacrosse player Gautami Palthepu as part of the IHSA's Stage 1 return-to-play guidelines. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • A hand sanitizing station at Naperville North is just one of the many guidelines the IHSA implemented as part of its Phase 1 return-to-play plan.

      A hand sanitizing station at Naperville North is just one of the many guidelines the IHSA implemented as part of its Phase 1 return-to-play plan. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Batavia football coach Dennis Piron is a member of the IHSA's Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.

      Batavia football coach Dennis Piron is a member of the IHSA's Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Sara Flanigan

    Sara Flanigan

  • Chris Murphy

    Chris Murphy

  • Dennis Piron

    Dennis Piron

 
 
Updated 6/30/2020 4:55 AM

As Glenbard East athletic trainer Chris Murphy wrapped up his three-year stint on the IHSA's Sports Medicine Advisory Committee, he requested a second term so he could see through some football business on the agenda.

Little did he know.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A year later he and the rest of the 11-member committee -- known as the SMAC -- are in the midst of helping the IHSA through the most-turbulent time in its 120-year history. It's a mix of athletic trainers, doctors, coaches and school administrators trying to keep prep sports on track to return in the fall from the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's tough trying to come up with something that'll work for everybody," Murphy said. "To work on something that'll have such a huge impact on the state has been an eye-opening experience for all of us. It's been pretty intense."

None signed up for something this monumental, but each has accepted the challenge.

"It's been challenging and heartbreaking at the same time," said SMAC member Sara Flanigan, activities director and assistant athletic director at Wauconda High School. "We love sports and activities. To see we can't just waive a magic wand and make it come back is very difficult.

"While it's daunting, I'm grateful for that because that tells me everyone is doing their diligence to make sure everything is done with educational decision making," she said. "We're not doing something just to do it. We are making sure we look at this from every angle and get the guidance from the experts."

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When prep sports teams were allowed to reconvene in early June for regulated conditioning as part of the IHSA's Stage 1 return-to-play plan, the SMAC members designed the guidelines. And as the IHSA carefully maneuvers into the expansion of activity in the Stage 2 guidelines, the SMAC remains on the front line.

Fans of high-school athletics have been on pins and needles waiting to hear the latest guidance from the Illinois High School Association, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH).

As far as acronyms are concerned, though, the SMAC has become just as important.

"This pandemic has only cast a brighter light on the importance of the SMAC," said IHSA executive director Craig Anderson. "They have been there every step of the way to provide guidance, leadership and a physical plan for safely reuniting student-athletes and coaches."

The SMAC was formed by the IHSA in 1988 with the primary goal of monitoring football injuries. Its work led to the elimination of first-round Wednesday playoff football games in 1994.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The IHSA's Player Safety Advisory Council formed in 2015 in an effort to better understand head injuries in football. Because the PSAC and the SMAC had similar safety goals, they merged into its current form. Flanigan and Batavia football coach Dennis Piron were two of the PSAC members who joined the SMAC.

As a veteran coach, Piron offers a unique and critical perspective to the SMAC's work.

"I kind of give them boots on the ground and let them know logistically how things might work," he said. "I just felt honored to be on a committee that makes decisions in the best interest of kids' health. We truly believe in sports for young people and we want to make it as positive an experience as it can be."

Just a year ago the SMAC's main focus was on concussions, acclimatization and how many games per week football players should play. Now the committee is tasked with safely mapping the future of prep sports in Illinois.

Whereas the SMAC normally meets three or four times a year, right now they're virtually meeting three or four times a week and communicating almost daily. Sometimes -- like now when the IHSA is trying to transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2 of the return-to-play plan -- the members talk multiple times a day.

"It's a lot but all of us have the same objective in mind," Flanigan said. "That's to preserve sports and try to bring back as many kids as we can in the safest way that we can."

When the SMAC designed the Stage 1 return-to-play guidelines, its wording was based on a 16-page release by the NFHS. Erring on the side of caution with basic conditioning, Stage 1 was approved by the IDPH in early June.

The Stage 2 draft from the SMAC, meanwhile, derived from the IDPH recommendations for youth sports as the state entered Phase 4 of Restore Illinois on June 26. The ISBE, however, had language in its return-to-school guidelines that differed from the SMAC's Stage 2 draft.

Reconciling the differences between the IHSA's Stage 2 draft and the ISBE guidelines likely will fall on the SMAC. And then approval still must come from the IDPH and the plan executed by each individual school district.

It can be a dizzying process trying to blend the NFHS, the IDPH and the ISBE with the IHSA's unique needs for Illinois prep athletes. As anonymous as the SMAC may seem, diverse voices aim for a united front.

"Every single day we're learning something new," Piron said. "You're looking at all these entities within the state and you're also monitoring what other states are doing. You're trying to get all this information and data delivered from all these sources and get it to the committee." Never in their wildest dreams did the SMAC members think they'd be so well-versed on infectious disease, gathering sizes and shelter-in-place orders.

The challenges are many, but the SMAC members remain focused on the ultimate goal.

They have to get this right.

"Sometimes it's hard to reach a consensus but we have a lot of good professionals and we've got so many different viewpoints," Murphy said. "At the end of the day, everyone walks away knowing they got something done."

Twitter: @kevin_schmit

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