As PIAA basketball finals begin, new transfer rules approved, attendance woes addressed

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
  • The PIAA approved two new in-season transfer rules on Monday.
  • Starting April 1, in-season transfers will have to sit out 21 days.
  • If an athlete competes in 50 percent of a season at one school, the athlete can't transfer and play at another school during the same season.

HERSHEY — The numbers are scrutinized like winning lottery numbers.

As soon as the finalists for the PIAA’s basketball championship games are determined, many fans crunch the numbers to determine how many of the teams headed to the Giant Center are public schools, charter schools or private schools.

Neumann-Goretti High School's Diamond Johnson (5) has been at the center of transfer controversy during the PIAA basketball playoffs. FILE PHOTO

The breakdown of the 24 teams going for the gold this week is: 11 public, 11 private, two charter.

But PIAA Executive Director Robert Lombardi doesn’t need new data to know the numbers are disproportionate. He hears about it every day, and the volume is turned up a notch or two every December and March, when the state football and basketball champs are decided.

The dominance of private/charter schools, particularly from Philadelphia, and the controversy over transfers continue to be the PIAA’s hot-button issues

Lombardi and the PIAA board of control don’t operate in a vacuum. They know there’s lots of griping going on and see it reflected in empty seats at playoff games, including state title games.

Monday night’s doubleheader attracted just 2,590 paid fans, a crowd that wouldn’t have filled some large high school gyms. And if you take away a decent showing from Sharon, the one traditional public school among the four in Hershey Monday night, you may not have even filled a tiny high school gym.

The state championship nights, moved to Monday-Wednesday from Thursday-Saturday because of last week’s storm, exacerbated an already-down year for attendance.

So, the PIAA is concerned and working on some of the issues that have created the negative vibe, as well as those empty seats.

New transfer rule: Lombardi was pleased to announce two amendments to the transfer rule were unanimously approved Monday morning before the start of the championships.

“We have approved a 21-day sit-out rule for in-season transfers that was already on the books and wasn’t supposed to be effective until July 1, but we moved that up to April 1 to cover spring sports,” Lombardi said. “The other piece that passed is the 50 percent rule. If you are available to participate in 50 percent of a season at one school, you won’t be eligible to play at another school should you transfer.”

The latter amendment was prompted by the controversy that arose during the state football playoffs and again during the basketball tournament, when sophomore Diamond Johnson joined the Neumann-Goretti girls team after transferring from a Virginia school in February. District 12 held a hearing and deemed Johnson eligible, but if the new rule had been in place, she wouldn’t have been eligible.

Johnson scored 14 points and had five assists and six rebounds in Neumann-Goretti’s 63-46 3A title win Monday.

Lombardi said the PIAA’s competition committee meets Tuesday morning with more initiatives to enact in an effort to discourage transfers.

“We’re talking about changing the transfer waiver request form and putting more items in there that will require schools to do more interviews and more checks,” Lombardi said. “If someone has a change of residence, for example, they’re going to have to provide more proof. They’re going to have to provide some documentation to show that they really did change residence and they can’t just say ‘Oh, we’re just renting and don’t have documentation.’ We’re trying to put more teeth into that and other items.”

Public-private debate: Of course, the outcry for separate public and private tournaments never totally goes away. Lombardi said again what he has said for years: it is not up to the PIAA to make that change.

“As long as we have a state legislature that says they want to honor school choice for the mom and dad, we’re going to follow the law,” Lombardi said. “If they want to change it, we’ll change it, but it goes back to 1972 when we had separate associations and it was a state rep from Allentown Central Catholic that created the impetus to change things toward one association.

“People point out New York and Maryland, well, they’re public school associations. And they’ll point out New Jersey, but that’s a different deal. The folks in our state aren’t willing to do that.”

Lombardi said the competition committee is looking close at competitive advantage and closely monitors all transfers.

“I understand the frustration,” Lombardi said. “Many schools might have a run of athletes that lasts only two or three years and other schools seem to be reloading and seem to be glorified AAU teams. That raises people’s ire. We all get it. But we have to be cautious of what we pass so that we’re not discriminatory to one side or the other.”

Attendance concerns: Lombardi said that attendance has been down across the board throughout the school year. The weather hasn’t helped.

“We expect our attendance will be impacted this week with the championships being played Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but the schools with good followings will still have good followings here,” he said. “We made the announcement as soon as we could about moving and that may have helped them gather themselves and get to the games.

“What troubles me is the annual people who come every year. They bought tickets in October, got hotel reservations and they couldn’t make it. We have a refund policy in place.”

Lombardi said that attendance, though, at many state championship events are down.

“We had some really bad weather in the week of the volleyball, field hockey and soccer championships,” he said. “In football, our crowds were pretty good up to the finals. But the finals were down, especially on Saturday, because we got about four inches of snow on Saturday afternoon.”

Even wrestling was down, but still doesn’t do poorly compared to basketball.

“This our 14th year at the Giant Center and in the first year we had 65,000 for the weekend,” he said. “This year, we were down to 40,500. But we have statewide TV. Every bout is on the Internet. Times have changed.”

PIAA pride? Lombardi said that despite the criticism he hears, the PIAA’s board of control hears the complaints and reacts to them.

“Our association doesn’t go around pounding our chest saying ‘We changed this and we changed that’ but there’s a lot of great things going on,” Lombardi said. “People are aware of what’s going on. If you listen to the bar room talk, you’d think no one has done anything. But we do. Just these changes we’ve made this week is reflective that the board is aware of what’s going on.

“Every state has the same troubles with the transfer rule. No one has a perfect world. We think by tracking transfers a little more closely, we’re going to have a better idea of what’s going on and what we can do.”

Too many teams? Lombardi said he’s generally pleased with how the six-classification system is going, but would like to see teams be at least .500 to get into states.

“We can solve that because some districts say that if you’re (not) 50 percent or better, you can’t get into the playoffs,” Lombardi said. “Maybe we ought to make that statewide. Some districts already do that and I think it’s a good idea. Playoffs are not for everybody. Championships are not for everybody. It’s to reward the best. That could possibly happen. I don’t think anybody liked seeing what occurred with the [Kennedy Christian rout].”

Kennedy Christian routed Lourdes in the 1-A boys' title game, 78-36. Kennedy Christian led that game 30-0 after one quarter.