The two States of 2020 high school football 

High school football returns to Kenosha, Wisconsin on a clear and chilly October evening. (Jake Bramande/MEDILL)

By Jake Bramande
Medill Reports

The stark contrast between dark and bright lights at Illinois border towns on fall Friday nights is a physical example of this country’s political divide in handling the pandemic. Just eight miles apart, Kenosha, Wisconsin, played high school football this fall, while Zion, Illinois, had their season postponed to the spring. 

While the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) decided to postpone football to the spring, all states that border Illinois — Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, and Missouri — played football this fall. This led to a class-action lawsuit filed in October by parents of Illinois high school students contesting the IHSA’s decision process. The case was later dismissed, but for towns so close in proximity to each other, the difference is clear.

In Kenosha, new protocols and restrictions were in place for Kenosha Tremper High School’s victorious season opener against in-city rival Kenosha Bradford in early October. It was one of only four games being played for each of these teams in a season shortened by the pandemic, compared to 10 games in a regular season. Fans were initially not going to be allowed in the stadium. However, just three days before kickoff, the Kenosha Unified School Board ruled unanimously in a special meeting to allow two spectators per participating athlete to attend outdoor sporting events. Spectators were required to wear masks the entire game, sit at their designated home and away bleachers, and sit at marked spots on the benches six feet apart for social distancing. 

The approximately 100 spectators, along with Kenosha Bradford cheerleaders, roared during big plays, making the environment at times sound relatively normal. However, the limit of two spectators per athlete forced some relatives to improvise. Candice Jackson and Ronald Slocum, mother and grandfather to a Tremper player, sat just outside the stadium behind the fence to watch the game.

“This view actually isn’t bad,” Slocum said. “Yeah, I’m pleasantly surprised,” Jackson said. Although farther from the action, the two, bundled up in warm layers for the cold evening, clapped and screamed for Tremper throughout the night. 

Understanding how close they are to different circumstances, Jackson is happy her son is playing.

“My son has worked hard his entire life to get to this point,” Jackson said. “I think it’s great they are doing this to let him play.”

Wisconsin allowed individual districts to choose whether they wanted to play in the fall or postpone their high school football seasons to the spring. According to data from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) and Wisconsin Public Radio, 382 –74% of WIAA member high schools — proceeded with fall football. 

In Zion, Illinois, only a 15-minute drive south of Kenosha, it was a completely different picture. 

Zion-Benton Township High School Stadium at 7 p.m. on a fall Friday 2020 evening. (Jake Bramande/MEDILL)

To properly portray how close Zion-Benton Township High School is to Kenosha, its crossroads even have the Wisconsin city’s name in it – 21st Street and N. Kenosha Road. The small suburban city of 24,000 people sits about an hour away from — and almost directly between — the major cities of Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

With football postponed to the spring in Illinois, Zion-Benton’s Athletic Director Lonnie Bible sees the political divide in handling the pandemic head-on. “You’re getting pushback on both sides quite honestly,” Bible said. “ One side wants us to be more open and be able to have more competitions, and the other saying we shouldn’t be doing any practices whatsoever, to make sure we have social distancing.”

For the sports deemed safe to play this fall by the IHSA offered by Zion-Benton, like cross country, the focus is on safety. 

“Our message has been very consistent, in a safe manner – as long as we’re safe, we’re going to try to provide as many opportunities as we can to our student-athletes,” Bible said. 

In August, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker released COVID-19 sports guidelines that forced the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) to postpone most fall high school sports to the spring, including football and soccer.  A total of 15 states –the majority of them, 12, having Democratic governors — similarly postponed high school football and other close-proximity sports to the spring of 2021.

As for the student-athletes in these cities, the side of the border they’re on makes all the difference. 

Seeing a different situation just miles away is challenging for Johnathan Coxey, a senior wide receiver for Zion-Benton. “It’s been hard because we see people just down the street that are allowed to play football,” Coxey said.  “What’s stopping us from doing what they’re doing?” 

After his team’s victory over an inter-city rival, the political backdrop was far away from the thoughts of Kenosha Bradford junior wide receiver Christian Crump. “I’m really happy to be playing,” Crump said. 

Jake Bramande is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @JakeBramande.