HEISER: Expanding classes will diminish value of winning state championship
A high school state sports championship should mean something truly special.
It should be the culmination of years of blood, sweat and tears.
It should be a symbol of not just sustained excellence, but unrivaled greatness.
Athletic excellence can, and is, celebrated with division, league and district crowns.
True greatness, however, should be reserved for state gold medalists.
In Pennsylvania, however, the value of a state title might soon be severely watered down.
As usual, the driving force behind the possible change is football.
Last week, the PIAA moved another step closer to expanding its state football playoffs to six classes.
Last Wednesday in Mechanicsburg, the PIAA strategic planning committee recommended that the PIAA's board of directors vote in October to pass a plan that will expand football classes from four to six, beginning next year. The PIAA's football steering committee met the same day and also voted to recommend six classes.
In football, an argument can be made for six classes. Because of the physical nature of the sport, roster depth is a critical issue. Larger schools, with a larger boys' enrollment to draw from, have a natural and significant advantage. Most large schools have few, if any, athletes starting on both offense and defense. That's certainly not the case for smaller schools.
Also, in Class AAAA football, the largest school has a boys' enrollment roughly triple the size of the smallest AAAA school. Many argue that's simply not fair.
Call for more classes in other sports: However, here's where the rule of unexpected consequences comes in. If the PIAA expands the number of classes for football, there will certainly be an immediate call to expand the number of classes in other sports, too.
It's only fair, right?
In fact, the clamor for more classes in other sports has already started.
On Monday, the executive director of the most powerful district in the PIAA said that if expansion occurs in football, it should also occur in other sports as well. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Tim O'Malley made that statement in a presentation to the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, also known as District 7.
Cheapening the value of state titles: If football expands to six classes, each class would have nearly 100 teams. O'Malley said that number should then be used for all team sports equally. According to the newspaper report, such a move would mean boys' and girls' basketball could each increase to eight classes, baseball and softball would grow to seven and boys' and girls' soccer each would have six.
While six classes in football might be an OK idea, having eight classes in basketball would be a travesty. You only need five players on the court at one time, and smaller schools can — and routinely do — beat much larger schools.
Do 16 teams really deserve the right to call themselves state basketball champions?
In a word, no.
Such a move would greatly cheapen the real value of a state hoops title.
O'Malley likely knows that, and he probably knows that state-wide support for eight basketball classes is much less than it is for six football classes.
In fact, O'Malley's idea might be the WPIAL's way of sabotaging the move to six classes in football. It's well documented that the WPIAL is strongly opposed to the expansion of the football playoffs, mostly because it would ruin the WPIAL's annual tradition of holding its football title games at Heinz Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
By tying football playoff expansion to playoff expansion in other sports, the WPIAL might ultimately make it more likely that no playoff expansion occurs in any sport.
Status quo not a bad thing: It would be unwise to underestimate the clout of the WPIAL in the PIAA. If District 7 wants to maintain the status quo, there's a decent chance that's what will happen. After all, it's always easier to do nothing than to do something.
In this case, doing nothing would be a good alternative.
The value of a state championship, across the board in every sport, would remain untainted.
Some might not consider that fair, especially considering that smaller states with fewer schools have more competitive classes than Pennsylvania.
Winning a state championship, however, should not be about creating a playoff format that is perfectly fair to all schools. There is no such thing.
It should be about recognizing true greatness.
Steve Heiser is sports editor for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.