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BOYER: It's time for our legislators in Harrisburg to step up in PIAA controversy

(Pottsville) Republican & Herald (TNS)

The state’s football coaches began the outcry.

Media from all across the state picked up the ball and ran with it, calling for change in columns, radio broadcasts and social media posts.

The public school athletic directors, administrators and superintendents have publicly voiced their displeasure.

Even the PIAA recognized it has problems and offered changes.

Pennsylvania government ... now it’s your turn to step up.

The ongoing battle involving “competitive equity” between public schools and “schools of choice” in Pennsylvania high school sports reached a new level Tuesday when more than 150 public school administrators gathered in State College for the first-ever PIAA Playoff Equity Summit.

The three-hour meeting reinforced the need for separate playoffs or separate classifications for boundary and nonboundary schools, especially in football and boys’ and girls’ basketball.

“I thought the Equity Summit was very informative and that was my main purpose for going,” Mahanoy Area athletic director Kieran Cray said. “I felt that there were some great ideas expressed via discussions between school representatives.

“We all know the current playoff system is broken and needs to be fixed sooner rather than later. Each passing year without any change is a disservice to the kids we are supposed to be serving. I really hope this Equity Summit is an important step in the right direction to fixing the current playoff inequity between boundary and non-boundary schools.”

Some important things have happened over the past year or so that have ignited the fire in this debate and made all sides realize that change is needed.

A quick synopsis:

High-profile transfers: There have been several talented players that have changed schools mid-season and had great impacts on teams’ quests for state championships.

From Micah Parsons (Central Dauphin to Harrisburg) and Tom Burns (Lawrenceville, New Jersey, to Conwell-Egan) in football, to Diamond Johnson (Tidewater, Virginia, to Neumann-Goretti) in girls’ basketball, the allowance by the PIAA’s transfer rules for these standout athletes — and others — to immediately play for their new schools raised public ire and media outcry for change.

It put more focus on non-boundary schools that reach the state playoffs, how their rosters change from year to year and where their athletes are coming from. The amount of recruiting that is being done by these schools is staggering.

That led to the PIAA overhauling its transfer rules (see below).

Continued state playoff dominance: When the PIAA expanded the classifications in nearly every sport prior to the 2016-18 cycle, it was designed to give more schools a chance to qualify for the state playoffs and — in theory — offer some variety in the teams that win state titles.

What happened? The same non-boundary schools kept winning titles in football and basketball.

Over the past five years, 23 nonboundary schools (out of 48) have reached the state finals in football, with 15 winning the title. St. Joseph’s Prep, Pittsburgh Central Catholic, Archbishop Wood, Bishop Guilfoyle, Imhotep Charter and Erie Cathedral Prep have been regular visitors to Hersheypark Stadium.

In basketball, nonboundary schools had 31 of the 48 boys’ state finalists and 28 of the 48 girls’ finalists. Neumann-Goretti, Kennedy Catholic, Archbishop Wood, Philadelphia Roman Catholic, Constitution and Imhotep Charter claimed multiple titles in that span, with some of those schools having totally different rosters from year to year that included new players from out of state.

PIAA changes: The PIAA adopted new transfer rules at its July 18 board meeting, suspending protocol since it was the second reading and putting the rules into effect immediately.

Among the changes were a mandatory 21-day sit-out for in-season transfers, a provision establishing that a transferring student who was eligible to participate in 50 percent of the team’s maximum number of contests before transfer is not further eligible that season, a one-year postseason ban for students who transfer after completing their 10th-grade sport season, the establishment of a compliance committee to be used to review schools’ adherence to PIAA policies and investigate abuse of the rules, the development of an eligibility portal to track and view all school transfers, and a “Competitive Classification” formula that adds a success factor if caused by transferring students to determine new classifications in football and basketball.

The new transfer rules were the PIAA’s way of saying there’s a problem, and we need to fix it.

“PIAA recognizes the challenges of having member schools compete against each other,” said James Zack, president of PIAA and superintendent of the Shamokin Area School District. “The lack of enrollment boundaries, success and perceived competitive advantage over other schools are major issues of which the Board of Directors is well aware and actively pursuing equitable resolution.”

Equity Summit: The administrators and athletic directors in attendance formulated two proposals for separate playoff tournaments:

►Creation of a seventh classification of private and charter “schools of choice” who would face each other in PIAA playoff competition. This classification could be divided into two subdivisions (small, large) with the “competition formula” being used to dictate subdivision status for a school’s two-year cycle.

►Revert to the previous four classifications for traditional public schools and use classifications five and six for private and charter “schools of choice.”

The playoff structures could be implemented by the 2019-20 season without affecting the regular season.

“There was a lot of passion in the room from the schools and all shared a common goal to try and do what is best for the kids in each district,” Lehighton athletic director Kyle Spotts said. “I think the latest changes the PIAA has made should help. Obviously they recognized there are some issues within their system and they did what they felt they could at the time to address it.

“Will it be enough? We will see. Most of the people in attendance felt it was a step in the right direction, but may fall short in addressing the real issue.”

What’s Next?: First of all, what must be preached is patience.

I believe all sides realize things need to change. That won’t come quickly, and we must all accept that.

Second, all sides must work together. Pulling out of the PIAA is not an option, as any new organization won’t have the funding to develop its own rules, train and certify its own officials, get its own insurance and defend any litigation brought against the member schools.

Third, the PIAA must impose a rule that requires residency in Pennsylvania for at least one year before being eligible athletically. This will stop the student-athletes who live with their AAU coach or a “relative” just to play sports, and stop the non-boundary schools from getting players who live in New Jersey, Delaware, Ohio, etc.

Finally, the PIAA’s fall-back to forming separate playoff classifications for public schools and “schools of choice” is a 1972 law from the Pennsylvania General Assembly — Act 219 — that directed the PIAA to accept private schools as members.

That’s fine and dandy, but that bill is 46 years old, and a lot has changed since then. It needs to go, and quick.

Why? Three major reasons:

►In 1972, Catholic schools actually had boundaries.

In Schuylkill County, Nativity got all of the student-athletes from the Broad Mountain south (Pottsville, Saint Clair, Minersville, Schuylkill Haven, Blue Mountain, Pine Grove, Tri-Valley, Williams Valley), Cardinal Brennan got all of its student-athletes from the North Schuylkill and Shenandoah Valley school districts, and Marian got student-athletes from eastern Schuylkill County and Carbon County (Mahanoy Area, McAdoo area, Tamaqua, Panther Valley, Jim Thorpe, Lehighton, Weatherly).

Today, Catholic schools are drastically fewer in number — locally, Cardinal Brennan and Bishop Hafey in Hazleton closed — and can draw students from anywhere. For example, in recent sports seasons, Marian has had student-athletes that reside in the Pottsville and Blue Mountain districts.

►With the inclusion of the Philadelphia schools to the PIAA in 2009, the playing field has changed.

Philadelphia is full of talented athletes, especially in football and basketball. Transfers for athletic purposes are rampant, especially among the Catholic League schools, yet nothing is done.

►In 1972, there weren’t any charter schools. Today, those charter schools serve as AAU-like teams in the sports realm, attracting athletes with the promise of state-wide exposure and college scholarships. The new transfer rules might curtail that, but they won’t stop it completely.

I think we can all agree that the PIAA needs to change, and there needs to be separate playoff classifications for boundary and non-boundary schools.

It’s up to the Pennsylvania legislature to make those changes complete. Either do away with Act 219, or put it on the ballot as a referendum and let the public decide.

To the politicians in Harrisburg ... the ball’s in your court.

Contact the writer:; 570-628-6026; @pubsportsboss on Twitter