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'Sour grapes' comment by PIAA boss Bob Lombardi wasn't the smartest of remarks

The (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice (TNS)
New Castle's Michael Graham tries to get the ball past Imhotep Charter's Ahmad Nowell during the PIAA boys' Class 5A state basketball championship game Friday, March 25, 2022, in Hershey, Pa. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
Bob Lombardi

Bob Lombardi should have kept his mouth shut.

Discretion, it is said, is the better part of valor. That's especially true when you're running the commonwealth's governing body for high school athletics and, ergo, are paid to be the biggest target for criticism among prep sports fans and coaches in more than 46,000 square miles. But discretion often leaves no recourse for the perpetually frustrated, those who spend most of their days ducking verbal bullets.

When Roman Catholic High School bested Archbishop Wood, 77-65, for the Class 6-A championship Saturday, it ended a rough weekend for the state's best public school teams, a reality that predictably got blamed on the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association and Lombardi, its executive director.

Lombardi responded to incessant postgame criticism of how the PIAA runs its championship tournaments by going on the record with the things he likely mutters to himself in the privacy of his office after hearing these complaints about the inequities public school sports programs have to face in comparison to their private school counterparts.

Everything is cyclical in competition, Lombardi vented. Sometimes one side wins more; other times, the other side does. Why can't these coaches just accept that the other team was better this time? Maybe they'd have won, he shrugged, if they were simply coached a little bit better.

"I think some of it, I hate to say, is sour grapes," Lombardi said after the state's top private and charter schools finished their respective championship romps.

Gross inequities: Certainly, Lombardi realizes a few things he didn't say in his own rant, because he'd have to be completely out of touch not to. There are gross inequities between private, charter and public schools when it comes to athletics. So gross, even the most sound execution of the Xs and Os is powerless against the talent some private school coaches are allowed to compile on the free agent trail.

Most of the big-school teams that competed for championships and won had Division I prospects or commits on their rosters. When Imhotep Charter beat New Castle for the 5-A championship Friday, it got nine points from Ahmad Nowell, a top point guard prospect who won a public school championship in 2021 — in Tennessee.

Point is, these aren't new trends. There are just more and more people complaining about them, as championships that are handed out more often still remain elusive.

Aliquippa coach Nick Lackovich, after an 18-point loss to Devon Prep in the 3-A championship, did his best to give credence to Lombardi's "sour grapes" take by starting his commentary saying, "I'm not crying," then uttering the phrase "It's not fair" twice in his next four sentences.

"It would help if schools with boundaries don't have to play ones that don't have boundaries," he concluded.

The brilliant analysis on issues that aren't new didn't stop there.

Does anyone have a workable solution? What would be nice is if someone could indeed go where no critic has gone before and come up with a solution for these issues, rather than blaming Lombardi and the PIAA. Because the insinuation that they aren't doing enough to make this as fair as possible under the current regulations they're working with is asinine.

Sure, there are inequalities. Yes, public schools are at a disadvantage. But it's not Lombardi's whim, but a Pennsylvania law that has been on the books for 50 years that prevents the PIAA from holding separate championships for public and private schools. Without a change in the state law, Lombardi has long contended the PIAA would open itself up to discrimination lawsuits, and he did so again in Hershey.

"If the legislature would like to change the law, we'll be glad to follow whatever they say," Lombardi said, adding the PIAA has "good information" that any type of separation before then likely would result in "immediate legal action."

Don't doubt it. See how upset public school coaches are that their road to a championship is difficult? Imagine how upset the private schools will be if theirs is suddenly more challenging.

Competition formula: In the meantime, Lombardi and the PIAA haven't exactly sat on their hands and shrugged their shoulders. The competition formula they enacted is forcing schools like Imhotep Charter to play up in classification. It hasn't meant much in the results yet, but it has at least put some sort of penalty on teams that are able to essentially draft their rosters from a wider swath of territory than traditional public schools.

Really, outside of that and a "Coach better," it has never been less clear what the PIAA can do to change any of this without the say-so of the state.

Maybe, the public schools will get that someday, and here's hoping they'll accept what comes along with that: Championships that look watered-down compared to their private-school counterparts. Glory on the way to a championship doesn't often come, after all, to those who push to make the road easier.