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Concussions: More of a silent killer than we knew

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As a youth sports coach, I’m taught to look for concussion symptoms to help a player avoid further damage. However, new research is showing that the damage could already be happening even if a player is showing no outward signs of injury. From the Chicago Tribune:

…[A] new study of an Indiana high school football team hints that some athletes are suffering brain injuries that go undiagnosed, allowing the players to continue getting battered, unaware of the possible cognitive damage that has been done.

Of 21 high school players monitored for a full season by a team of researchers from Purdue University, four players who were never diagnosed with concussions were found to have suffered brain impairment that was at least as bad as that of other players who had been deemed concussed and removed from play.

“They’re not exhibiting any outward sign and they’re continuing to play,” said Thomas Talavage, an associate professor at the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue and the lead researcher on the study. “The cognitive impairment that we observed with them is actually worse than the one observed with the concussed players.”

The report, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Neurotrauma, found that some players received more than 1,800 hits to the head during practices and games, some with a force 20 times greater than what a person would feel while riding a roller coaster.

The research is coming out as the debate rages over what is more damaging: one hard, individual hit, or the cumulative effects of multiple collisions. The science is rapidly pointing to the latter. It helps explain why the brain of the late Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry showed concussion damage, even though he was never diagnosed with such a condition, and why the brain of Penn player Owen Thomas, who committed suicide in August, showed trauma, even though he had never been diagnosed with a concussion.

In the Chicago Tribune article, players and coaches aren’t dismissive of the study’s results. Their worry is more about whether their players and teammates will play hard if they’re worried about head injuries.

“It’s a tough slope because you could end up scaring kids away from even playing football, and you see that a lot,” said Michael Holmes, the football coach at Leo High School in Chicago. “We make our kids conscious of it, but we don’t try to scare them.”

Reilly O’Toole, quarterback at Wheaton [Ill.] Warrenville South High School, said he doesn’t think at all about head injuries.

“If you think about injuries or concussions, that’s when they happen,” he said. “Once you start playing not to get hurt, that’s when you get hurt. It’s a contact sport. If you don’t like contact, you shouldn’t be playing.”

The Purdue researchers aren’t (yet) calling for the end of tackle football, but they are recommend scaling back full-contact practices so kids don’t have to take so many hits.

By the way, the Purdue researchers, citing their continuing study, are not telling the Lafayette Jefferson High players which of the four have signs of, not to put too fine a point on it, brain damage. If it were my kid, I would be demanding to know if mine was one of the four.

Lucky youth baseball player breaks leg — because it led to discovery of cyst

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Because it appears he’s going to be OK, we have license to say that 9-year-old Ryan Palmer of Marion, Ill., caught a lucky break in his baseball game the other day.

Lucky in that Ryan’s broken leg, suffered during a collision in the field in his local Pinto (Pony League) World Series, led to the discovery of a cyst. Ryan is a cancer survivor, so he’s had worse. Actually, his cancer had something to do with the broken leg, which helped in finding of the cyst.

From the July 23 Mt. Vernon (Ill.) Register-News:

Palmer, a cancer survivor, was rushed to a local hospital where Mt. Vernon physicians discovered a growing cyst near the fracture. The boy was then taken to Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, where he had surgery Tuesday morning [July 20].

“They got some really good news. The cyst came back benign,” said B.W. Bruce, coach of the Marion team on which Palmer plays. …

Bruce said Palmer has a strong disposition due to what he has already endured.

“He’s a tough kid. He’s been through a lot,” he said. “It was a situation where you know that he’s not going to complain or whine about anything unless it’s serious, which it was. The kid turned pale white and grabbed his knee. He knew exactly where it hurt. It was right above the knee where he broke the femur.” …

If the fracture had not occurred, the remaining cyst may have remained hidden, possibly causing future problems.

“It turned out that the break really happened because there was a cyst growing near that part of the bone,” said Bruce. “The chemotherapy that he went through a few years ago helped to weaken the bone.”

Ryan Palmer — you are made of tougher stuff than the rest of us, no matter how brittle your bones.

Written by rkcookjr

July 23, 2010 at 4:51 pm

The greatest 10-and-under girls softball game I ever saw

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Believe it or not, there are times when youth sports really are all about the kids, playing now, at this moment. Not about parents, coaches, future scholarships, future pro careers, who’s on the travel team, or who’s bringing the snack. All of a sudden, a game gets so good and compelling, and the young players’ nerves of steel so awe-inspiring, that all you can do is watch and enjoy the ride.

Tonight, that was my 10-year-old daughter’s third-place softball game for in the kinda-sexist-named Petite Division of the Oak Lawn, Ill., house softball program.

Usually, a third-place game (I managed that same daughter in one two years ago) is a loose affair, what with the pressure of a championship gone. (Thank God.) My daughter Grace’s team is pretty loose to begin with, so they can practically barely stand erect as her Frost, the fourth-place team in the regular season, played the Storm, the second-place team.

The Frost went up 2-0 in the top of the first inning, and the Storm tied it in the bottom of the second. The bottom of the third wasn’t so good for the Frost. They gave up the maximum six runs in an inning, were down 8-2, and looked outmatched by a team that had four travel players to their one. The girls looked dispirited coming into the dugout — and didn’t look any better when they went down 1-2 in the top of the fourth. The coaches’ voices didn’t change pitch, but the Frost coaches seemed much louder as they urged their players.

But then, the magic started happening. The Frost scored four runs in the bottom of that inning, the last two, if I may brag, on a two-run opposite-field single by Grace. Now down only 8-6, the Frost’s spirits were back up, and the parents started getting a little more interested in the game. A few by me joked about not wanting to go to the bathroom, lest they miss anything. All that toilet talk made me have to use the bathroom (where, by the way, I was saw my daughter’s manager in the next stall).

Actually, not just the parents were zooming in their focus. This Frost-Storm game was taking long enough, games were finishing on other fields, and hearing about the comeback under way, players and their families decided to stick around and watch. Slowly more people were circling the field, cheering good plays (by either team), and making more of a buzz and ruckus than your average Florida Marlins home game.

I don’t know much about the Storm. But what they were seeing out of the Frost was pure guts. Players who normally didn’t hit were smacking balls. The Frost would get pushed to the edge of the abyss, then come fighting back. Again in the bottom of the fifth, the Frost got two quick outs. But then came four more runs — on two-run singles placed to about the same spot Grace placed hers. By the end of five-and-half innings, a 8-2 Frost deficit had become a 10-10 tie. More fans streamed toward the field, out of the impending darkness, to check out what was going on.

What was going on was two teams of 9- to freshly minted 11-year-old girls who were as cool and loose as the crowd was wound tight, especially we parents. It’s always difficult to watch your child play because you can’t protect them from injury or failure. It’s even harder when they are being put in situations that would make major-leaguers fold. In the Frost’s comeback, all of the eight runs they scored after falling behind came with two outs. A lot of them came with two strikes. I don’t think they even heard the parents or coaches anymore. I didn’t. I didn’t know of anything that wasn’t happening in front of me.

The Storm came back with one run in the bottom of the fifth to go up 11-10. That meant, for the Frost, score in the top of the sixth, or the game is over.

Grace was up first. She had two hard singles her first two at-bats. But she struck out against the same pitcher she already hit twice. If you followed me on Twitter and Facebook (and why wouldn’t you?), you would have seen this:

Grace strikes out to start 6th. Just setting team up for more two-out heroics.

Hey, after what I had seen the previous two innings, that was not a cocky thing to say. Meanwhile, the players and coaches for the Petite championship game, which was already supposed to have started, were now gathering around to watch.

It turns out the heroics were after one out. More girls smacked base hits to that same magic spot in right field, and the Frost ended the top of the sixth up 13-11. Do you believe in miracles?

The Storm didn’t become a second-place team by folding up easily, either. Though they appeared rattled at times that the Frost wouldn’t go away, they rallied for two runs in the bottom of the sixth and final regulation inning. They had the bases loaded with two out. One walk, and the game was over.

The Frost’s pitcher, Jackie, who in her first game pitching cried herself to distraction after her rough outing (so much I had Grace make a point to tell her everything was OK and her teammates had her back), was now in her third inning tonight — and she wasn’t backing down. Sure, she might get a little frustrated over a bad pitch, but her eyes were lasers into the catcher’s glove. The count works to two balls and two strikes. At this point, the 15,000 people were standing or on the literal edges of their seats to see what would happen. Discussion over how a 10-year-old girl can stomach this much pressure was rampant. If anybody brought Maalox, they were chugging it.

Jackie throws a pitch catching the outside part of the plate. Called strike three. Game is tied.

You know the cliche that it’s a shame somebody has to lose this game? (Ask John Isner and Nicolas Mahut about that one.) As it turned out, in Frost v. Storm for third place, no one had to. It was 8:35 p.m., 35 minutes after the championship game was supposed to have started. So no extra innings — there’s a tie for third.

For this game, there really was no other appropriate way to end it. I don’t know how the Storm felt. But the Frost players were beaming and jumping around with excitement over grinding out such a tough, um, not-win. After each game in their league, a team will form a line with players on each side, slapping hands and chanting, “We. Are. Proud of you, yeah, we are proud of you,” as the other team runs underneath — and then the teams reverse the lineup. In this case, I think the 27,000 fans who saw the end were ready to do the same chant with each team.

Oh, of course, there were some dimbulbs who couldn’t grasp the excitement of the moment. One old fart sitting next to me was ripping the coaches and the players like he was watching a Chicago White Sox game. Dude, these are volunteers coaches and 10-year-old girls, not full-time millionaire pros. Another guy was upset the Frost and Storm couldn’t play extra innings. I mean, really whining about it. Another parent mentioned to Grace’s coach that it’s too bad the Frost made so many errors, or they would have won.

My response is to quote my late father: If my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.

Who cares? Each team makes errors. Half the fun of watching this age group play is seeing how they recover from their mistakes — and both teams improved by leaps and bounds in learning how to forget their mistakes and move on.

It’s nearly three hours after the Frost-Storm game, and I’m still feeling a buzz about it. It’s the kind of buzz that keeps me excited about my kids’ games, even when around me there’s hassles with parents, coaches, future scholarships, future pro careers, who’s on the travel team, and who’s bringing the snack.

Your 2010 Frost, after losing to the eventual champion. Yep, they’re a loose group.

Homeschool parents deservedly lose battle to get kids on public school teams

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This piece in the Joliet Herald News makes it sound like the Minooka (Ill.) school board members on the majority side of a recent 5-2 vote in favor of excluding homeschooled kids from sports made a decision tantamount to throwing those kids in the educational garbage can. To the contrary. The homeschooling parents already made their statement about public schools by not enrolling their children in them, so I don’t think they get the right to cherrypick when suddenly they decide the evil government school has something they want.

Before I get to that, a word from Chris Balkema, one of the board members who voted for allowing homeschoolers to play:

“Right now with students and parents who are paying our bills, the current policy discriminates against students who learn at home.”

This is laughable. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA. For if Balkema had even the slightest understanding of his state’s laws on homeschooling, and on the state high school athletic association’s rules on homeschoolers, he would have punted this dumb suggestion out the door, too. (Of course, asking a school board member to be educated and even-handed is usually a lot to ask.)

Illinois, actually, is a very friendly state to homeschoolers. A 1950 court decision allowed for homeschooling, treating those children as if they were enrolled in their own little private school. Today, Illinois is one of 10 states that does not require homeschooling parents to alert their public school district that they are teaching their kids at home. A 1974 federal court ruling said that parents in the state have to file some sort of progress report with the district, but no one ever enforces that. So Illinois parents have carte blanche to teach their kids at home without the government poking its nose inside the kitchen, or the dining room, or wherever the home classroom is.

In exchange for being left out of the claws of the local government-run school district, however, home-schooled students can’t participate in it. You might say, but they pay taxes to the district! True. But state funding of the schools is determined by actual attendance. So the homeschooling parents would end up getting services on state taxpayers’ dime. The only services Illinois law mandates are given to private as well as public school students are drivers’ education, and a limited amount of special education. That’s it. But that’s the price you pay for getting to teach your child exactly the way you want, when you want. The Illinois State Board of Education says that districts are under no obligation to provide anything else. They can, but they don’t have to.

Plus, the Illinois High School Association has clear rules on whether private school kids — and, remember, that’s what homeschoolers are — can play for a public school. The rules are, they can’t. If the testimony of Theon Hill at that Minooka board hearing is to be believed, his playing sports at Romeoville High School while still a homeschooler would have been a violation of this IHSA rule:

A student must attend a member school and may only represent in interscholastic competition the member school the student attends. For purposes of this by-law, the term “attend” shall mean that the student is enrolled at the member school,
and is taking at, or under arrangements approved by the member school, a minimum of twenty (20) credit hours of work
for which credit toward high school graduation will be granted by the member school upon the student’s completing and
passing the courses. The school which enrolls the student shall be exclusively responsible to verify the student’s compliance
with all of the eligibility requirements of all IHSA by-laws.

I know that many states have passed so-called “Tim Tebow laws,” allowing homeschool athletes to play school sports. Florida passed the first such law in 1996, though not because of Tebow, who wouldn’t bless high school fields with his presence for about another half-decade. However, Tebow is usually cited as Reason No. 1 for creating such a law, as if every homeschooler was a future Heisman Trophy winner.

Tim Tebow sez: “Hey, homeschool kids! You’re not going to not have sex with someone like this if you can’t play school sports!”

Even if a state doesn’t pass a Tim Tebow law, in some cases courts have allowed homeschoolers to play. One might say, activist courts, if they didn’t have the support of right-wing, Christian organizations such as the Home School Legal Defense Association. That makes those judges honest, common-sense kinds of people.

The Home School Legal Defense Association itself shows how homeschooling organizations — still overwhelming evangelical Christian, even as homeschooling has spread beyond its population (insufferable liberals instead call it “unschooling” to separate themselves from the conservative rabble) — try to play both sides of the high school football field chain-link fence.

After a West Virginia lawsuit the HSLDA supported successfully overturned the state’s rule preventing homeschoolers from playing public school sports, the victorious attorney declared that the “homeschooled are part of the public education system.” The HSLDA said, um, no, they’re not: “HSLDA disagrees with this statement. Homeschooled children are privately educated and have only minor contact with the public school system.”

Yes — only the contact that homeschool families choose to have, the kind that makes up for what homeschoolers lack, without exposing them too much to bad things like cooties, street gangs, and Catholics.

Look, homeschool parents: you’re either all-in, or you’re out. It doesn’t hurt to ask a public school if little Mordecai can play, but if it says no, don’t walk out in a huff and act like you’ve been denied your inalienable rights. Plenty of other parents across the country have set up networks of homeschool athletic leagues, bands, choirs, you name it. Don’t have one in your area? Here are some resources for starting one.

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An example of a homeschool league. Also, an example of possible trademark infringement that might draw a letter from the NCAA.

Failing that, your local parks departments or independent sports leagues have teams that are open to anyone with only one qualification: the check clears. There are club teams you find as well. In fact, you’re better off with them if you think little Esther Homeschooler has a shot at a college scholarship, because most coaches scout elite leagues; they don’t even bother to look at school sports anymore.

For those Minooka, Ill., parents all upset that their kids aren’t going to be future Indians, if it means that much to you, put your kids in public schools. And trust that your influence doesn’t disappear the moment your child is out of your sight, and that you can still educate your child even when others are doing some of that work for you.

Why youth sports hazing happens: because adults say it can

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Sometimes a message board is like listening a roomful of drunks. They’re incoherent, belligerent, funny and rude, and they’re all talking over and around each other. But sometimes, in their uninhibited state, they speak their most closely held feelings that they might otherwise not reveal in polite company.

That’s how I look at the threads on Illinois Matmen, a message board focusing on wrestling, that are devoted to the Prairie Ridge High School hazing scandal. For those of you thinking the only hazing I care about happens in Carmel, Ind., on March 5 Crystal Lake, Ill., police arrested five wrestlers as juveniles on misdemeanor counts of simple battery relating to hazing, which they did without benefit of a 1970s goalie mask. (I bet Crystal Lake people get tired of those “Friday the 13th” jokes in a hurry.)

Specifically, the wrestlers are accused of slapping fellow wrestlers and groping their privates through their clothes.

An attorney for the wrestlers has categorized the conduct as “innocent, adolescent horseplay.” That’s to be expected; he’s on the payroll. But the adults (and other high school students) condoning the wrestlers’ behavior — heck, practically giving them high fives for it — can be found on Illinois Matmen, which I discovered thanks to this recent Northwest Herald article on the school’s take toward investigating the scandal.

I’ll preface this by saying that if it seems like wrestling shows up a lot in hazing news, then some of the posters on Illinois Matmen will confirm your beliefs that there is something about the sport — which already has plenty of groping, intentional or not, of other people’s privates — that invites a hazing culture.

There are three threads devoted to the hazing scandal — well, some would say the scandal is that the school and police made such a big deal about a little necessary rite of passage, or as it’s often called on the site, a right of passage. (Like drunks, as I said.) The threads are here and here and here. There is a lot of discussion about pink bellies: repeated, open-handed slaps to the stomach meant to leave a pink mark (though if done repeatedly and hard enough, an act that can leave red welts).

[youtubevid id=”BohgKxAm0T4″]

The 2007 John W. North High School (Riverside, Calif.) boys cross country team gives us a demonstration of the pink belly.

Now to some highlights, which alternate between extreme tough-assedness and the Stockholm Syndrome:

“This is ridiculous. These kids are going on trial for assault for giving pink bellies. This isn’t chess,it’s wrestling” — BigHeadTodd

“This is complete garbage. This was nothing more than what goes on in every wrestling room and locker room in the Country. This same stuff that happened here has probably happened to your kid Cubs84 as it has happened to almost every kid at sometime in the wrestling room. It looks like this was done late in the day on Friday. I’ll find out more when I get to the Courthouse Monday.” — Radical

“I agree, unless things get out of hand, like hitting as hard as can, it’s just kids being kids. When I was a senior captain on my team, a couple of other seniors taped me up and threw dogde balls at me. it was all in good fun, and the coaches thought it was funny too. It may sound like they didn’t respect me, but they did, and it was just for fun.” — jimbob

“It’s sad that it’s called hazing anymore. It was always a right of passage thing. A way of earning respect and showing loyalty.
I have been given and have given pink bellies that turned into welted red bruised bellies that lasted for days. Those who didn’t get these “badges” were never highly regarded. Showing your team you can take it and not whine or cry about it is part of becoming a man. As long as it doesn’t leave a lifetime scar emotional or physical it’s free range.” –uniteordie

“My wrestling team in high school gave pink bellies to wrestlers on their birthdays. That was the coach’s rule.” — Mr. White

“haha well I forget which team, but they pick a freshman that is on the varsity team and make him kneel in the middle of the mats to where everyone can see. he puts his hands behind his back and an older teammate hits him as hard as he could in the face… everyone laughs and cheers!! it’s really funny, even the freshman laugh” — USAwrestlingDAD189, describing an apparently annual event at an Illinois wrestling tourney

“Pink Bellies are part of a tradition that has been going on for decades. When I think back years ago when I was a Freshman in Highschool they used to line us all on the floor and in a room we call the cave and turn the lights off. Each Senior would go down the roll slapping us in the stomach. When I was a Senior we did the same thing. The intent was not to hurt the other person but to see who can take it. During Football this would happen the whole Homecoming week.” — maddog81

Am I cherry-picking responses from the posters at Illinois Matmen? I sure am! To be fair, there were people who did say they thought that any hazing, even pink bellies, was unacceptable, and that the Crystal Lake police were well within their rights to do what they did. But I’m not sure a lot of young athletes hear those voices. Instead, they hear the voice of the coach who encourages the behavior, or hears the implicit voice of the coach who never discourages it.

Other posters worried about how the Prairie Ridge case would affect the sport of wrestling. One made an interesting point about why perhaps so many on Illinois Matmen don’t have a problem with hazing:

“Most of us on this website are wrestling enthusiasts and have very positive feelings toward the sport. That means that we survived or even enjoyed the initiation or hazing that we (or our kids) participated in. And I agree that most of it is pretty harmless with teenagers just goofing off and having fun. However, the kids who had the worst experiences and were bullied or seriously embarrassed probably are not on this forum to share their thoughts, because they are no longer involved in the sport.” — MatsDad

Bass fishing: the next hot high school sport

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Forget all the hype about all the schools adding lacrosse. If you want to go where the action is, hit the crik, er, creek.

In Illinois another 27 high schools are adding varsity bass-fishing teams, joining the 199 that participated in the inaugural year of the Illinois High School Association’s endorsement of competitive angling. From the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat:

Dave Gannaway, an assistant executive director with the IHSA, said two sectionals sites will probably be added to the existing 18 to accommodate the extra schools.

“I’m plotting them on the map now to see kind of where we need to add,” Gannaway said. “It looks like we’re going to have to add one down south and it looks like we’re going to have to add one up in the (Chicago) area. That’s where the two major growths were.

“A lot of schools in Southern Illinois kind of took a wait-and-see attitude. They saw it turned out to be pretty good and jumped in, which is great.”

Sure, this sounds great now.

But soon enough, there will be bass-fishing club teams, traveling six-and-under bass-fishing teams, and rotator cuff injuries caused by too much casting, and there will be a backlash where worried parents make sure everyone gets a fish. And then we’ll fret that parents have ruined bass fishing, and we’ll pine for the days when kids just got together to head to the crik, er, creek just for the pure joy of it all.

Written by rkcookjr

January 17, 2010 at 4:13 am

Illinois's basketball uniform police step off the beat

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3925905340_753a0e916cThe Illinois High School Association’s basketball fashion police, led by assistant executive director Kurt Gibson (not pictured at right), is suddenly backing off after an early-season crackdown on wide stripes, long shorts and other sartorial crimes.

The question is not why the IHSA is taking a break from measuring inseams, but why did it bother to be so hard-assed about it? The answer comes from the end of last season.

In the Class 3A semifinal game between Champaign Centennial and Chicago North Lawndale College Prep, Gibson, saying he had warned North Lawndale for two years, decided enough was enough, and ordered the referees to assess a pregame technical foul because North Lawndale’s top had an under-armpit stripe that was too wide. Champaign Centennial hit the free throw, and went on to win by — I think you can see where we’re going here — one point. (And then Champaign Centennial won the title game over Oswego, which had redone its uniforms earlier in the season because they were illegal.)

Gibson’s crackdown was controversial, mainly because of when it was enforced. North Lawndale coach Lewis Thorpe said no one had ever warned him about the uniforms. Plus, because of the pregame technical, he was forced to sit the whole game — and the third-place game, which North Lawndale won despite again being down 1-0 before the game started.

In response, the IHSA decided to get even a bigger stick up its butt about the uniform rules. All over Illinois, teams were watching pregame technical foul free throws and seeing their coaches chained to the bench because they (and their vendors) violated the uniform rules, which actually come from the National Federation of High Schools, which has rules to protect what it calls the “sanctity of the number.” Not that NFHS is a strange, numeral-worshiping cult, but that the referees can easily see and signal a number.

The Pantagraph in Bloomington, Ill., noted how intense the scrutiny was coming from the IHSA and its crews of Tim Gunns.

The rule was vigorously enforced during the recent State Farm Holiday Classic where the Normal West, University High, Chicago Hope and Champaign St. Thomas More girls teams were ruled to have illegal uniforms.

A technical foul was assessed against the coaches, who then could not stand the rest of the game. Their foes shot two free throws and got the first possession.

“We had never had uniforms questioned before that I can remember,” said U High athletic director Wendy Smith, who later took the “illegal” uniform to the IHSA office in Bloomington, where it was ruled to actually be legal.


So, with athletic directors and coaches all over the state wondering if they were going to have to play shirts-and-skins because of uniforms that may or may not be illegal, the IHSA decided to call off Jean Valjean. Especially with schools not exactly having money to throw around for new uniforms. From the Pantagraph:

The IHSA responded [Jan. 13] to a growing outcry from athletic directors and coaches concerned about a financial hit of nearly $4,500 to replace uniforms or have their teams penalized a technical foul to start the game.

“We have no intention of requiring schools to expend additional dollars now, or in the future, to replace illegal uniforms,” IHSA executive director Marty Hickman said. “We fully realize there are many more pressing financial needs in our schools than basketball uniforms.”

Schools with illegal uniforms … need only apply for a waiver, and they can use their uniforms for the rest of the season, including the state series, without penalty, the IHSA said.

They can also continue to use the uniforms by receiving a waiver on an annual basis until the normal replacement time for their uniforms.

Schools with illegal uniforms that fail to apply for a waiver will continue to have a technical foul given to their coach prior to the start of the game.

Well, that’s nice to hear. However, the schools might need to spend a few bucks on a tailor, just to be on the safe side.