NAACP says PIAA rule unfairly impacts Pennsylvania high school football program

CHRIS HARLAN
The (Greensburg) Tribune Review (TNS)
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The Beaver County branch of the NAACP added its voice to those opposing a PIAA rule that could force the small-school Aliquippa football team to face even larger opponents in Class 5-A next season.

In a letter dated Monday and addressed to the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, also known as District 7, the branch argued that the PIAA competitive-balance rule discriminates against low-income communities such as Aliquippa, where residents tend to be more transient. The PIAA rule targets for promotion teams that experience postseason success and added three or more transfers over a two-year period.

"Stated simply, Beaver County's African American community moves, based on the realities of their finances," Beaver County NAACP president Mtume Imani said in the letter. "Children are not typically moving into Aliquippa for any other reasons than financial necessity — it is cheaper to live there."

Aliquippa is one of the smaller schools in the state and has an enrollment that would put the football team in the smallest classification, Class 1-A. The Quips elected to voluntarily "play up" to Class 3-A from 2016-19, before the PIAA created the competitive-balance rule and forced them to 4-A the past two years.

Now, after winning the Class 4-A state title in December, and adding more than three transfers, Aliquippa appears headed to 5-A for the next two seasons.

"It is the assertion of the Beaver County NAACP that this decision flies in the face of the spirit of youth athletic competition, places this small and legitimately (Class) A team at grave physical risk, and is illustrative of, if not overt racism, then at least support of underlying systems that disproportionately affect the poor and African American children of our communities," Imani wrote. "As a region, we must come to terms with two truths. First, we must acknowledge that socioeconomic status and race are closely linked here, and often, African Americans and other minorities are at an economic disadvantage. There are deeply entrenched reasons for this reality, and now it manifests through the transient living arrangements of the poor."

A copy of the NAACP letter was provided by Aliquippa superintendent Phillip Woods, who has insisted the school district will strongly oppose the involuntary promotion to Class 5-A. Woods previously suggested the football team might consider an independent schedule next fall if the PIAA doesn't relent.

The PIAA board will hear appeals from schools later this month.

State Rep. Rob Matzie, a Democrat representing parts of Beaver and Allegheny counties, also wrote a letter to the PIAA objecting to Aliquippa's possible promotion to Class 5-A. Among his points, Matzie also suggested that the PIAA rule unfairly impacts low-income communities.

"In blanketly applying the competitive balance rule to Aliquippa, the PIAA is refusing to acknowledge the circumstances of the community involved," Matzie said in his Dec. 13 letter, "and is ignoring the socio-economic demographics that drive transfers both into, and out of, the school district."

Among the football teams promoted two years ago were Aliquippa and Farrell.

"Those two communities were the first to go into bankruptcy status after the demise of the steel industry," Matzie said in an interview.

"People aren't moving to Aliquippa to play football," he added. "It's just not happening. That's just reality. Has it happened before? Maybe you've had a kid move back and move in with an aunt or a grandmother or a guardian. But it was always a familiar issue."

In a written response to Matzie's letter, PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi noted that a school can avoid promotion by demonstrating its team has no "competitive advantage over like sized schools." However, Lombardi also noted last month that he saw "no legitimate complaint" against Aliquippa playing bigger schools after the Quips won the Class 4A state title.

Matzie is one of the state legislators on the Pa. Athletic Oversight Committee, a panel that monitors the PIAA. In his letter to the PIAA, Matzie referenced an exchange he had during a PAOC hearing last May, in which Lombardi said: "We want to fish for sharks. We don't intend to catch dolphins," in regard to the competitive-balance rule.

If so, Matzie said, he believes the PIAA rule should be tweaked to assist Aliquippa. Currently, the rule is written in a way that teams are promoted from their previous level of competition. Instead, Matzie said he believes a team should be promoted from its actual enrollment classification.

"I understand and support the need for a competitive balance rule," Matzie said. "But as a legislator, I also understand the need to be responsive when a rule or law brings about unintended punitive consequences. Simply put, Aliquippa's situation is not one for which this rule was implemented. Their classification is not only unfair, but it flies in the face of the spirit and intent of the rule itself."