Now that the PIAA football playoffs concluded and six champions celebrated in Hershey, the state’s athletic governing body is on the offensive in defending itself amid criticism over competitive equity between public and nonboundry schools.
The hot-button issue continues to cast a cloud over the quest for state titles by scholastic athletic teams in the Commonwealth. A cry for a separation of playoffs for public schools and private and charter schools gains fervor during this time of the year. But, the PIAA is standing steadfast behind its compliance with the law.
At the recent board of directors meeting, a motion on its position was unanimously voted upon. It states, in short, “at the recommendation of counsel, concludes and therefore reaffirms that the separation of playoffs with regard to public, charter and private schools is contrary to the publicly documented intent of Act 219 of 1972.”
Before the legislation, the PIAA and Pennsylvania Catholic Interscholastic Athletic Association competed separately for state championships.
Act 219 at center of controversy: Act 219 is at the center of the controversy. It is an amendment to House Bill No. 2104 that unanimously passed in 1972, “authorizing private schools to participate with public schools in post-season athletic events.”
The adopted motion by the PIAA is a firm indication that, despite impassioned pleas for change, it will not circumvent the legislation.
“The board knows what the legislation intent was,” PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi said. “My predecessor Ted Wagner (PIAA executive director in 1972) was in the room when the bill was signed. What we learned in our research is that representative Frank (Rep. Samuel Frank, D-132 of Lehigh County) had tried since 1955 to get into the PIAA.
“Separating them back to what they had before 1972 is against the legislative intent of the bill.”
A PIAA Equity Summit, a gathering of public school officials organized in State College this summer by Laurel superintendent Leonard Rich, who recently did not have his contract renewed, brought more attention and fueled a stronger desire to implement an overhaul of the playoff format.
That group also met with the PIAA Competition Committee in November.
Two private schools win state football titles: Over the weekend, among the 12 schools competing for state football titles, nine were public schools, two were preparatory schools and one was a charter school. Of the six state champions, two were private schools — St. Joseph's Prep in 6-A and Erie Cathedral Prep in 4-A.
Throughout the playoffs, and across social media platforms, the PIAA found itself, again, the target for not addressing what many believe to be an obvious solution for an even more clear competitive advantage nonboundry schools, which have the freedom to draw students from any and all areas, have over public schools in postseason play.
That solution: Hold a separate playoffs for public schools and another for boundary schools.
PIAA response: In response and abiding by the legislation, the PIAA has listened and adopted policies to tighten its transfer policy regarding students changing schools for athletic purposes. It implemented strict guidelines that ban postseason play, there is a 21-day sit-out policy after a transfer and there will be a competition formula enacted.
The PIAA has also expanded the number of classifications in most sports, including football and basketball, which seem to be the two at the heart of this dispute. Football and basketball increased from four to six classifications beginning with the 2016-17 school year.
“In May of 2017, we took a hard look at the transfer rule. There were major changes implemented in the last 15 months and I think that is quite a compliment to the board,” Lombardi said. “We have a competition formula that will go into effect at the end of the year. We have an in-season ban, a 21-day mandatory sit out period, a 50 percent participation in season rule. We have listened to the membership and are working diligently to produce equal and the best competition for our schools.”
Criticism continues: Those changes do not seem to be enough.
“We are always going to have people critical of a decision,” Lombardi said. “I think classifying based on size and with the increased number of classes, we have been getting new schools involved, for example Lackawanna Trail, Penn Hills is back after a while, Manheim Central. Playing closer like-sized schools has helped.
“Everybody bases their criticism on which teams win. We are in the business of who enters and having proportional and equal representation, not to be divisive.”