The landscape of high school sports in Pennsylvania could be drastically altered if a bill unveiled Tuesday is approved.
Surrounded by leaders of Pennsylvania public and private school organizations, state Rep. Aaron Bernstine, a Republican from western Pennsylvania, announced the group’s proposal, the Parity in Interscholastic Athletics Act, that would fundamentally change high school athletics in the state.
The biggest change in the proposal would be a stipulation requiring separate state playoffs in eight sports for public and private schools, but that is far from the only change. The bill also includes a major overhaul of the current PIAA transfer rule, significantly easing transfer restrictions.
Many public-school officials have long clamored for separate state playoffs, claiming that private schools, which don't have any boundary restrictions, have an unfair advantage during the state playoffs. There have also long been allegations that the private schools unfairly recruit players from public schools.
PIAA still opposed: While everyone on the stage at the Capitol Media Center in Harrisburg was on board with the plan, the PIAA had a much different opinion. The PIAA Board of Directors released a statement Tuesday which said the organization believes the proposed legislation is ill-advised, unfair and should be rejected.
“Change can be scary,” said Eric Failing, executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. “This is a big change and we’ve worked very hard together. This has been a fantastic partnership between the public schools, the legislature and the private schools that put this together.”
The support of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is a major achievement for the bill's supporters. Previously, the state's Catholic schools had been ardently opposed to having separate state playoffs.
Easing the restrictions of the transfer rule is likely one reason the Catholic schools support the bill.
Failing said another reason the Catholic schools are supporting the bill is because it contains a clause that says any school that forfeits two or more games would be ineligible for the state playoffs. Catholic schools have been complaining that some public schools would forfeit games, or "blackball" them, in an effort to avoid playing the Catholic schools during the regular season.
Transfer rule: In its statement, the PIAA said it's opposed to the elimination of the current transfer rule. If passed, athletes would be allowed to transfer to any school prior to 50 percent of the team’s games being played, unless their parents are forced to move for financial reasons or a military assignment, according to Bernstine.
In its release, the PIAA said that easing the restrictions of the current transfer rule would allow athletes to transfer to any school for any reason. The PIAA said that could create consolidation of top athletes at certain schools, which would result in powerhouse teams that reload each year with new recruits.
Public schools would be at a disadvantage in recruiting because its students must still meet geographic requirements to enroll in public schools. Despite that fact, Leonard Rich, co-state coordinator of the Pennsylvania Athletic Equity Steering Committee, said the public schools would be fine with athletes transferring to any school they choose.
"Super Bowl:" Under the proposed bill, the private and public school champions would compete in different state playoff brackets before the two state champions met in what Bernstine described as a “Super Bowl.” Charter schools are included with the public schools because, according to Pennsylvania statute, charter schools are considered public.
“We’re going to separate playoffs,” Rich said. “We’re all on the same playing field and competing with similar types of schools. The inconsistency of the (enforcement of the) transfer rule wasn’t worth the effort (to oppose it).”
In addition to the other major changes in the proposal, only certain sports would immediately adopt the separate state postseason format. Initially, baseball, boys’ and girls’ basketball, football, boys’ and girls’ soccer, softball and girls’ volleyball would have separate playoffs, but any sport in the future that has 50 public school and 50 private school teams could use the proposed format.
All sports that currently have individual state championships (such as track and field, swimming, wrestling, golf, tennis and cross country) were not among the sports included in the act.
One of the major points that was still unclear is how the state playoff brackets will be decided. Under the proposal, district championships would still include both private and public teams before the separate state playoff tournaments began.
Trying to level playing field: William Hall, the co-state coordinator of the Pennsylvania Athletic Equity Steering Committee, said that in December of 2018, his committee received a letter from the PIAA that suggested they work together with the private and charter schools to create a proposal that would level the playing field.
Bernstine said that the group was proud of the work they did together and that they brought all parties involved into the discussion, unlike previous attempts to change the current PIAA postseason format. Bernstine added that with the amount of people involved in creating the proposal, he expected House Bill 1600 would be approved by both state houses and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf.
“This isn’t a couple of people who went rogue here,” Bernstine said. “We brought everybody to the table you could imagine in order to have these conversations. Everybody was invited.”
While they were invited, PIAA representatives weren’t standing on stage with Bernstine, Failing, Hall and Rich on Tuesday and said that the proposal would be detrimental to the health and safety of student-athletes and their participation in subsequent sport seasons in their statement.
Better for everyone involved? Hall closed his final statement with a remark that he believed participation and attendance in sporting events would increase because of the proposed playoff format and it was better for everyone involved.
“It’s going to bring back some excitement to the state championship playoff game,” Hall said. “I think that game at the end is going to be a popular one because anything can happen in one game. That’s what we we’re looking for all along, just level the playing field come playoff time. Give both sides a chance to hang a banner and then play a game at the end.”
Failing summed up the intentions of the group with his closing statement and reiterated the common theme that all four shared on Tuesday — it’s about the students.
“Let’s stop arguing about kids' sports,” said Failing. “Just let the kids play. That’s what we’re trying to do here today.”
Reach Rob Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org.