HEISER: A Diamond may be the tool that helps cut a deal on PIAA playoff reform

  • The PIAA has come under fire for many years for the alleged unfairness in its playoff system.
  • Many officials from public schools believe nonboundary schools have an unfair advantage.
  • A PIAA Playoff Equity Summit on July 24 will discuss the problem and possible reforms.

It’s a debate that’s been raging for nearly half a century.

Finally, however, there may be some actual change on the horizon.

Neumann-Goretti High School's Diamond Johnson (5) walks through the handshake line after her team defeated Dunmore 66-42 in a PIAA girls' basketball playoff game in March. Johnson's transfer created a state-wide firestorm of controversy. AP FILE PHOTO

The time for real reform of the PIAA playoff system appears to have finally arrived.

What’s truly remarkable, however, is that after decades of controversy, a decision by a teenage girl has provided the impetus for substantive action, as opposed to endless talk.

Turning point: The turning point in the boundary-nonboundary dispute in Pennsylvania high school sports occurred when Diamond Johnson decided to transfer this past winter.

This was not, however, any ordinary transfer.

Johnson, you see, had already played 19 games last season for a high school in Hampton, Virginia, averaging 33 points per game. The sophomore already had NCAA Division I scholarship offers.

Suddenly, however, right before the PIAA playoffs, Johnson parachuted in to join the powerhouse Neumann-Goretti girls’ program out of Philadelphia. Her transfer was approved by District 12 officials, conveniently citing “a private family matter” which could not be divulged.

The N-G girls’ team had won three straight state titles but had been struggling, by its standards, during the 2017-18 regular season and district playoffs.  A fourth-straight state crown seemed unlikely — until Johnson arrived.

With Johnson in the lineup, N-G steamrolled its state opposition and cruised to a fourth-straight PIAA championship.

Generating outrage: The N-G fans, of course, were delighted. Most every other high school sports fan, athlete, coach and administrator in the state was outraged.

Allowing the transfer of a star athlete right before the state playoffs seemed to contradict every concept of fair play.

It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. After years of seeing the private and charter (nonboundary) schools dominate the PIAA championships, especially in the high-profile sports of football and basketball, the public school (boundary) folks reached the breaking point.

PIAA responds — at last: They expressed their anger on every outlet available to them — most especially on social media — and the PIAA officials in Mechanicsburg heard their rage. At last.

Under the direction of executive director Robert Lombardi, the PIAA quickly created a competition committee to consider long-needed reform.

PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi.

The PIAA is looking to tighten transfer rules and enact a new competitive-balance system that would include transfers and a “success formula,” in addition to enrollment size, when determining school classifications.

Lombardi even said a new “super class” for football and basketball is possible.

Lombardi detailed some of the PIAA’s proposals when he met with the Legislature’s PIAA Athletic Oversight Committee on June 18.

At hearing, PIAA officials say changes coming

Public schools respond: There was just one problem. The public school folks were not represented at that hearing — only charter or private school officials testified, along with Lombardi.

That snub apparently didn’t sit well with many public school officials, and they decided to take action.

Last week, word leaked out that public school superintendents, athletic directors and other officials would meet in State College on Tuesday, July 24, for a PIAA Playoff Equity Summit. The last report said at least 100 schools are expected to attend, which represents about 20 percent of all PIAA public schools.

Could PIAA be replaced over playoff issue?

"Nuclear option?" What really got the attention of many, however, is that a so-called “nuclear option” would be considered if the public schools didn’t get a satisfactory response from the PIAA.

What is the “nuclear option?” The public schools might leave the PIAA and form their own organization, which would not include the nonboundary schools.

Since that time, however, a number of public school representatives have walked back the talk of the “nuclear option,” instead saying they simply want reform of the PIAA.

Separate tournaments: What many would most like to see are separate tournaments for boundary and nonboundary schools.

The PIAA officials, particularly Lombardi, have long said that separate tournaments are a “nonstarter” and would violate the 1972 state law that allowed private schools to join the PIAA.

The Equity Summit will undoubtedly be on many minds Wednesday, July 18, when the PIAA board could vote on its new competitive classification proposal.

Likely outcome: Where will all this end?

Well, the PIAA isn’t going anywhere. The organization is simply too entrenched in Pennsylvania high school sports to be simply blown up. Besides, the PIAA’s critics, while united in their calls for change, almost certainly couldn’t come with a unified agreement on how to replace the organization.

In addition, don’t look for completely separate playoffs for boundary and nonboundary schools. To achieve that result, you would almost certainly have to get the General Assembly involved, and right now, it’s unlikely our state’s politicians would want to wade into that quagmire. It’s a no-win situation, and politicians are notorious for wanting to avoid no-win situations. It’s a good way to lose elections.

Change is coming: So what will happen?

The public school folks will use the Equity Summit to put even more pressure on the PIAA to make substantive changes.

The PIAA, meanwhile, will approve many of the reforms already under consideration.

The reforms will likely not satisfy the desires of many public school folks. They’ll grumble, but they’ll ultimately accept the revisions because they know it’s probably the best achievable outcome.

The new rules will almost certainly be complicated, messy and could create some unintended consequences. There could very well be some lawsuits by the nonboundary schools.

Changes, however, are coming, and those changes will hopefully create a more level playing field.

Most surprisingly, the catalyst for that change can be traced back to a decision by a talented teen girls’ basketball player to change schools.

Just remarkable.

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