HEISER: After 45 years, there's no end in sight for public-private debate in PIAA sports

Steve Heiser
York Dispatch
  • The PIAA first admitted private schools as members in 1972.
  • Since that time, many public-school folks have claimed private schools have an unfair advantage.
  • In the past four years, private schools have claimed 26 of 36 PIAA basketball crowns.

Our Pennsylvania Legislature created this mess more than 45 years ago, and unfortunately, only the Legislature can likely fix it.

Neumann-Goretti High School's Diamond Johnson (5) walks through the handshake line after her team defeated Dunmore 66-42 in a PIAA Class 3A basketball championship playoff semifinal game at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pa., Monday, March 19, 2018. Johnson transferred to Neumann-Goretti from Phoebus High School in Hampton, Va., shortly before the start of the PIAA basketball state championship playoffs. (Christopher Dolan/The Times-Tribune via AP)

Yeah, good luck with that.

What mess are we talking about?

If you look at the high school sports calendar, you can likely figure it out.

Still haven’t guessed it?

It’s the public-vs.-private controversy that annually reaches a fever pitch in the week leading up to the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association basketball championship games. This year’s state finals start Thursday in Hershey.

The beginning: This became a major issue on Oct. 16, 1972, when Gov. Milton Shapp signed Act 219 — an amendment to the Public School Code that forever changed Pennsylvania high school athletics.

It reads simply: “Private schools shall be permitted, if otherwise qualified, to be members of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.”

Sounds fairly benign, doesn’t it?

No one, at the time, could’ve predicted the political and athletic firestorm those few words would unleash.

Before the 1972 act, only public schools competed in the PIAA playoffs. Catholic schools, meanwhile, competed in their own state playoffs, operated by the Pennsylvania Catholic Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Private schools become dominant force: Since Act 219 was signed, private schools have become a dominant force in PIAA competition overall, but especially in basketball, where only a few players can swing the outcome of a game — or a season.

Over the previous four seasons, for instance, 26 of the 36 state basketball championships were won by private schools. Private schools make up only a fraction of the PIAA membership, but are winning the lion’s share state basketball crowns.

Not surprisingly, that doesn’t sit well with most public-school folks — and they have a legitimate argument. There have long been cries that private (or nonboundary) schools unethically recruit, skirt the rules against transferring for athletic purposes and can unfairly draw players from areas far from their campus.

Philadelphia story: The complaints became even louder when the Philadelphia city schools were added as District 12 members in 2008-09.

The Catholic and charter schools from the city quickly became PIAA basketball powers.

This year, the debate has become even more boisterous — and that’s saying something.

Neumann-Goretti: The focal point of the debate this season rests on the girls’ team from Philadelphia’s Neumann-Goretti. The Saints have won three straight PIAA basketball titles with an average margin of victory in those state finals of nearly 30 points.

That kind of dominance doesn’t make a program very popular with its opponents, especially when it comes with charges of recruiting players from all over the mid-Atlantic region.

This year, however, N-G was struggling a bit, comparatively speaking.

They entered the state Class 3-A playoffs with a rather ordinary 17-7 record after losing to Imhotep Charter in the District 12 title game.

Transfer controversy: Suddenly, when the state playoffs rolled around, N-G had a new star player — Diamond Johnson, who had already played 19 games this season for a high school in Hampton, Virginia, averaging 33 points per game. The sophomore already has NCAA Division I scholarship offers.

Since her addition, Neumann-Goretti has won four straight state playoff games by an average of more than 22 points per game and has won a spot in yet another state title game in Hershey. Johnson is averaging about 16 points per game for N-G.

District 12 approved Johnson's transfer and declared her eligible for the PIAA playoffs. District 12 vice chair Joe Sette issued the following statement about Johnson:

“We found out that the student was a native of Philadelphia and left for Virginia when she was 11 years old. She returned to Philadelphia due to a private family matter which I cannot divulge to you.”

Sarcasm duly noted: Dunmore coach Ben O’Brien was hardly surprised at the late addition, which seemed suspiciously convenient for N-G. His teams had been eliminated by the Saints in PIAA action in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

“Last time we played them, their best player was from Virginia, they had two starters from New Jersey and two from Philadelphia,” he told the Scranton Times-Tribune. “The season before that, they had two from New Jersey, one from Texas and two from Nigeria. So I guess you could say their basketball recruiting footprint is getting smaller, which I am sure the PIAA appreciates.”

His comments were practically dripping with sarcasm.

He went on to say: “This has been a hot-button issue for many years now, and it’s hard to imagine that no one has been able to come up with an equitable solution.”

Possible remedies: O’Brien is right. No one has come up with a solution — certainly not the PIAA. There have been innumerable suggestions, including:

►Having completely separate tournaments for public and private schools and then having the champions square off.

►Making all private schools compete at 6-A level because they don’t have to adhere to the boundary regulations imposed on public schools.

►Using some kind of statistical formula that would ultimately end up bumping private schools to higher classifications across the board.

►Tightening the rules against transfers for athletic reasons.

Change needed, but unlikely: There’s no doubt that change is needed. Some (but not all) private schools are clearly gaming the system and gaining a huge competitive advantage over the public schools.

The PIAA’s role is to prevent that.

However, it’s become apparent that the PIAA is reluctant to make any major changes because it’s fearful (and rightfully so) that the state Legislature will again intrude into its business and dictate policy to the PIAA.

There also is little doubt that the PIAA is fearful of litigation from the private schools.

So, it’s likely up to the Legislature to make this situation right. Our politicians created this mess in 1972, and it’s up to them to fix it.

That seems highly unlikely. The politicians don’t want to wade into this quagmire either.

So the public-private debate will almost certainly rage on … year after year after year … with no real solution in sight.

— Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.