Make no mistake, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association deserves a lot of the criticism it gets.
Understand this, though: It’s also a giant target for criticism; a walking, talking, breathing, lumbering bullseye that, to many, struggles to do anything right.
Maybe, this time, it might finally be onto something when it comes to policing what unquestionably is the biggest issue it faces.
At the end of May, the PIAA’s board of directors met in Mechanicsburg and started the process that could lead to the passage of two rules that may not ultimately end the practice of top high school athletes wantonly transferring to top programs, but could at least create an environment in which transfers penalize both the athletes and the schools that allow them.
Those two rules, which were passed on a first-reading basis:
►Student-athletes who transfer high schools after the ninth grade will be ineligible for postseason games at their new school for one year.
►The implementation of a “competition formula” that would address competitive-balance issues in football and basketball.
The Neumann-Goretti case: Look, the first of those two rules should have been in place all along. Not every program under the PIAA’s auspices can easily add a start player in the middle of a season to carry it to the playoffs. For others, it’s second nature.
We all know the story by now: Neumann-Goretti, a state power in basketball which has won three consecutive PIAA girls hoops championships, struggled as the calendar turned this past season. Enter Diamond Johnson, a sophomore guard averaging 33 points per game for the high school she had been playing at in Virginia. Suddenly, Neumann-Goretti found room in its hallowed halls for a prospect like Johnson, who barely even tried to make the tried-and-true argument that she left her previous school for academic reasons. Unthinkably, the District 12 committee green-lighted the free-agent deal, saying it couldn’t “legally” prevent it.
Lo and behold, Johnson and Neumann-Goretti got to celebrate a championship for the fourth consecutive year, even as the public scorn for its methods grew. Technically, everything that went down there went down according to the rules set forth in a spineless rulebook. But it had “last straw” written all over it, and it made perfect sense that the PIAA wouldn’t go another season with out a policy that would prohibit such a blatant snapping of the spirit of the rules.
Complex proposal, complex issue: When it comes to addressing the bigger issue with transfers, though, the second proposed rule is much more interesting.
It’s a complex rule for a complex issue, but boiling it down to its core, it’s essentially the PIAA’s answer to baseball’s luxury tax. Programs can feel free to do what they want when it comes to bringing players aboard — under the rules, of course — but bring in enough, and it will affect the size of the public schools with which you’re lumped in.
Under the “competition formula,” teams would be assessed points when they advance far into a postseason. They’d get one for getting to a district championship game, two for making it to the PIAA quarterfinals, three for the semis and four for the championship game in a given sport.
According to the new policy, programs that accrue at least six points over a two-year span and exceed the number of allowed transfers would then be forced to play in the next highest classification for the next two-year cycle.
Since the maximum number of transfers allowed would vary by sport — the PIAA deems it one less player than half the size of a sport’s starting lineup — the rule is different for every program. But let’s say you’re a girls' basketball team playing in PIAA Class 3-A and you won four straight state championships and have two (or more likely more) transfers on your roster. You’re going to be playing 4-A ball the next couple of years.
Enough of a deterrent? The question the PIAA will have to figure out is whether that’s enough of a deterrent for a program whose identity is winning championships every year, no matter what. It might not be, and it’s very likely that a school like Neumann-Goretti in basketball or any number of the private and charter schools in football that have such a thirst to fill the trophy case that they’ll do whatever it takes to reload talent from outside school halls and go full-bore on recruiting efforts to compete against even bigger schools, no sweat.
If the vast majority of schools would rather play against similarly sized programs than bring in the extra transfer or two, this rule will work long-term. If not, it will be nothing more than a band-aid for a wound that continues to deepen. The Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League surveyed all 138 of its member institutions, which also are members of the PIAA, and asked whether they would prefer separate playoffs for public and private/nonboundary schools.
When those surveys came back in, 86 percent of responders said yes. Frankly, it wouldn’t be surprising if the surveyed public schools’ number ranged about 14 percentage points higher.
There’s division among member institutions, and the PIAA knows it. But the organization’s long-held stance is that state law would have to change for separate championships to be mandated.
What they’re searching for in the meantime is the next best alternative.
Is this it? Who knows.
At the very least, it’s a big step in another direction, which is something just about everybody involved with high school athletics in Pennsylvania should agree is absolutely necessary.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.