The Honorable John J. Tharp, District Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, ruled in favor of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) in a summary judgement opinion on Thursday, July 13, 2017.
The ruling pertained to a lawsuit filed by the parents of a student-athlete at a member high school that sought the implementation of new qualifying times for para-ambulatory athletes for the IHSA Track & Field State Finals, as well as a para-ambulatory division in the IHSA’s 5K Road Race.
“Rulings like this can be misconstrued as the IHSA limiting opportunities for students, when the opposite is really happening,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson. “The IHSA Board, and several committees, have and will continue to consider these requests and others like it. However, as a membership organization, we need to be able to go through our processes and procedures to implement changes, as opposed to being forced via litigation.”
The IHSA received a request for a separate division of competition from a student-athlete with a disability in 2012, which the IHSA Board of Directors responded to by forming a committee to look at the feasibility of adding separate divisions. The Board chose to conduct a pilot program during the 2012-2013 school year, offering separate competitions for athletes with disabilities in cross country, bowling, swimming and track & field. After the pilot year, the Board voted to continue to conduct the events annually, building on a philosophy of inclusion that began with the creation of the IHSA Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, which began in 2004 and is held in conjunction with the Boys Basketball State Finals in Peoria each March.
“I believe that the IHSA’s track record speaks for itself in regard to creating additional opportunities for all student-athletes,” said Anderson. “It remains important that we be able to follow the rules set forth in our Constitution when making changes. We appreciate that Judge Tharp’s thoughtful ruling provides us that latitude.”
The IHSA conducted its inaugural Road Race at Heartland College in Normal in June, 2017, with the competition featuring a Wheelchair Division, Male Division, and Female Division. The Road Race was born, in part, as an alternate participation opportunity after the IHSA received no entries into its Cross Country race for athletes with disabilities from 2012 to 2014. The IHSA’s Athletes with Disabilities Advisory Committee was integral in the development of the Road Race, which was initially scheduled for the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year, but due to low participation numbers was moved to June.
“I think the Road Race epitomizes our commitment to expanding opportunities,” said Anderson. “After some initial setbacks, we stayed the course and worked to make the race happen. We are proud of the inaugural event and will work to make it bigger and better. We will also continue to encourage and support ambulatory athletes in their participation in IHSA programs alongside their able-bodied teammates.”
The IHSA crowned the first Combined Team State Champion in the Association’s history at the 2016 IHSA Girls Track & Field State Finals. Combined state champions are determined by combining the points accrued by a school’s student-athletes competing in the athletes with disabilities division with those from the traditional meet scoring system. The first boys’ combined state championship was awarded in track & field this past spring.
“I really believe that our efforts speak for themselves and we certainly aren’t done,” said Anderson. “We are proud of what the IHSA and its membership have accomplished and the advances we have made for providing opportunities for all students. Like all of our programs, the Association will continue to explore ways that we can enhance participation opportunities for students in Illinois.”
The IHSA was named the Outstanding Organization of the Year by Special Olympics Illinois in June, 2017. The merits of the honor included expanded outreach to its member schools on providing unified programs. The IHSA conducted its second Unified Bass Fishing Tournament this spring as a part of its state final tournament and held its first Unified Basketball Tournament at this year’s IHSA Boys Basketball State Finals in Peoria.
“Ultimately, high school sports are about the value of participation, not necessarily state championship participation,” said Anderson. “I think Illinoisans should be proud of all the opportunities the IHSA offers high school students, especially when comparing to other states around the country. We were the first to hold a wheelchair basketball tournament and are among the few, if not the lone, state association to conduct a swimming state final for athletes with disabilities. We will keep working on behalf of our students to break new ground.”