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J. Thomas McNamara

     These are not the best of times for either Eisenhower athletics, District 61’s administration or the Board of Education.
Cancellation of this spring’s Panthers football season is an embarrassment to the school, the district, the teachers association and the Decatur community.
     And the shared responsibility for this starts with District 61’s remote learning policy that prevented teachers and coaches from getting into their respective classrooms for more than a year now. Other neighboring districts had remote learning policies in place, but they left their buildings and grounds open to coaches and players for their allowable Illinois High School Association contact days which District 61 did not.
     District 61 returned to in-school class on Monday, March 22, the same day Eisenhower informed Central State 8 athletic directors that it was cancelling the Panthers football season. And those two events are related as one will learn by reading on.
     The effects of remote learning on academic eligibility are now being felt in District 61 athletics as prep sports heat up, including football.
     Without question, remote learning played a role in Eisenhower’s recent decision to cancel the Panthers football season. That decision has created huge headaches and nightmares for Tim Gould, the school’s athletic director, who now is the front man for Eisenhower football, its future, and how the program has gone from a state quarterfinalist several years ago to now where it can’t play a six-game season when nine games are played in a normal year.
     The decision also has left parents, guardians of the student-athletes, and Panthers fans with numerous questions that have gone unanswered on why meetings weren’t held in advance of the announcement with the football players parents and/or guardians.
     Also, no one has been able to explain satisfactorily how and why there’s been such a dropoff in Eisenhower football since the exhilirating high of that season when Alexander Field was ringed with spectators for the playoff games.
     Eisenhower is not the only school affected by the effects of remote learning as MacArthur Athletic Director Jason Crutcher addresses later in this column about how there was sufficient numbers to field a boys soccer team, but he couldn’t because of academic ineligibilities.
     And the Generals could not court a freshman girls basketball team because of insufficient numbers and that was caused by neither students, teachers nor coaches being in the buildings to speak about their quality program. Make no mistake about it the coaches there have a quality program to sell.
Once again, it’s the student-athletes who are hurt with this decision. They’re the ones who don’t get to play the games they need to find scholarships to get them out of Decatur for their academic and athletic advancement.

It’s A District Problem,
Not Just Eisenhower

     So, this is a District 61 situation, not just Eisenhower. In the Panthers case, it was varsity football and the sport at hand which is why it’s getting so much attention.
     Here’s District 61’s statement on cancellation of the spring Eisenhower football season, “The Eisenhower administration team along with Athletic Director, Tim Gould, made the difficult decision to not participate in high school football games this spring season. Our program did not have a sufficient number of student-athletes available to participate to overcome issues arising from the Covid protocols, IHSA practice requirements,and academic eligibility.
     “This decision was made in the best interest of our program and student-athletes. We understand,this unfortunate situation is not ideal for those who are committed to our football program including our staff, coaches, students, parents, and alumni. We will continue to carry momentum for the football program in a positive direction to prepare for the fall season.”
     Here’s what further troubles this sports editor who has covered District 61 athletics for 45 years. The Central State 8 athletic directors met Monday, March 22, where Eisenhower informed their colleagues it would not have sufficient numbers to field a team this spring.
     Someone from there advised the Springfield Journal-Register they would have to find a new opponent to replace Eisenhower. I read 12 papers a day and that’s where on Monday afternoon (March 22) I first saw that Eisenhower was cancelling its football season.
     I immediately wrote Gould. I was told the district was working on a press release. Here again District 61 lacks transparency which other media outlets have cited. It was not until late Tuesday afternoon, March 23, that we got the above news release from the district.
Eisenhower’s remaining five opponents are now scrambling to try and find someone to play, including MacArthur.
     MacArthur was scheduled to play Eisenhower at Matheson Field April 23.
Athletic Director Jason Crutcher had not found a new opponent as of today (Thursday, March 25).
This is not the first time a Decatur public school has had to cancel a football season as Tim Cruz made the same decision when low numbers prevented him from fielding a team safely at the now closed Stephen Decatur high school which is now a middle school.
     The Illinois High School Association doesn’t allow schools Eisenhower’s size to coop with MacArthur. And anyone interested in transferring must physically move to the district to be eligible.
Eisenhower’s decision also is creating questions among the Central State 8 conference on what happens to the league if Eisenhower can’t field a football team this August for the 2021 season.
Closing a high school is not the answer either athletically or academically. Such would lead the existing league members to drop MacArthur because its size would be to great for them to swallow. And MacArthur then would move up in class to at least 7A and not have anyone around here to play. The only scheduling options would be southwestern and northern Illinois, including Chicago and its suburbs. I’ve written previously about the problems this would create.
     As I point out below academic ineligibility is a result of the remote learning that the district has had in place since the pandemic began that kept the teachers and students out of the buildings where, as I cite later in this piece, teachers could have told the coaches what students were having trouble and corrected it before ineligibilities occurred.
     Earlier this season coaches and others mentioned how declining numbers were brought about by students not being in buildings that were closed. If they had been open with students attending classes, coaches could have talked with them about either coming out for football or returning to the game they once played.
     Multiple coaches have spoken about their declining participation numbers because of their inability to get into the buildings to talk with students about playing athletics as they previously have. For example, MacArthur did not have sufficient numbers to put a freshman girls basketball team on the floor.
     The Generals had enough interest in boys soccer, but couldn’t do so because of academic ineligibilities brought about by the students not being in the classroom with teachers, who could have notified their coaches of their study deficiencies.
     Eisenhower now has cancelled its football season because of the academic ineligibilities and COVID-19 protocols.
     They’ve also spoken about how far behind they fell to their Central State 8 members. That was never more evident than when Sacred Heart-Griffin’s undefeated girls basketball team played Sean Flaherty’s lady Generals in the regular season and beat them double digits. SHG had played together all summer while the MacArthur coaches and girls could not even get in the buildings because of remote learning.
     However, it’s important to note that the lady Generals avenged that defeat with their Central State 8 tournament championship win in their last game of the year.
     I will have more on this obviously developing story in a future print edition of the Decatur Tribune.

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