It’s OK to make a mistake—and it’s commendable when that mistake is corrected.
Member schools of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) did that in late December by voting to rescind a plan that would have placed football teams in districts and done away with conferences.
The plan, which was voted through in December 2018, would have gone into effect in 2021. Teams would have been placed in districts based on geography and enrollment, then play seven or eight games against opponents in their districts. The top-four finishers in each district would make the state playoffs. Teams would also play non-district games to round out a nine-game regular season, but those games would not go toward qualifying for the postseason.
The plan had positives, but the list of negatives was far longer. In May, the IHSA released a draft of what districts would look like, and some schools realized they would travel hundreds of miles to play district opponents.
Critics of the plan also lamented losing the chance to compete against longtime conference rivals.
Locally, conference rivalries span generations, especially in the Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference. Many of those schools would have gone their separate ways if districts had been implemented.
Rivals could have still played each other in a non-district game, but with nothing at stake, the intensity would be diminished.
Plus, player safety is a major concern, so why would the IHSA have teams play games that are meaningless for the playoffs?
The district plan would have also harmed Chicago Public League (CPL) football. While those teams have improved in recent years, many of them still have a hard time competing with private schools and suburban public schools that have similar enrollments. It wouldn’t have been surprising if many CPL teams didn’t qualify for the state playoffs—and if those teams continued to struggle, it’s likely fewer players would choose to play.
The positives of the district plan included that schools wouldn’t have to worry about being left behind when conference reshuffling takes place, as it has so often in recent years. Being stuck without a conference, or being left in a small one, makes it difficult to schedule competitive games.
The IHSA still needs to address conference stability to keep football a strong—and healthy—sport.
However, at the least, maintaining the conference system in Illinois keeps the sport on solid ground.