When analyzing the PIAA winter sports season, the popular French expression comes to mind, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Loosely translated, it means that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Last summer, the PIAA scrambled to respond to pressure it faced to resolve the unquestionable and unconscionable advantage held by non-boundary schools, especially in postseason play.
The pressure came from a group – of what the PIAA executive director labeled as a few “rogue superintendents” – who held an equity summit in State College in July.
Rather than enacting the common-sense solution of separating playoffs for boundary and non-boundary schools, the PIAA pushed through new punitive transfer rules for all schools. As a result, athletic directors and high school principals have more unnecessary red tape, and student-athletes are punished by having to sit out if they transfer at the wrong time. The new rules certainly are equitable because they are bad for all parties involved.
Clearly, the misguided changes have not been efficacious. As proof, take a look at the 2019 girls and boy basketball playoffs. Over the weekend, teams from all six classifications vied for the state championship in Hershey. Although traditional public schools make up more than 80 percent of the PIAA member schools, only 50 percent of the 12 final girls’ teams are from public schools.
While obviously disproportional, it is nowhere near the shameful level of disparity seen in the boys’ brackets.
Of the 12 final teams, only two were traditional public high schools, and there were exactly zero public schools represented in the championships for the 1A, 2A, 3A or 4A brackets. Again, traditional public schools with geographic boundaries for enrollment account for more than 80 percent of the PIAA’s membership, and they make up less than 17 percent of the teams playing for the boys’ championship. The system is rigged, but the solution is a simple one with popular support.
That group of rogue superintendents (of which I am proudly a member, along with Eric Zelanko, Bill Hall and Len Rich) sent a survey to school leaders of all 500 traditional school districts in Pennsylvania. The response was overwhelming: 94 percent indicated that they supported separate playoffs for boundary and non-boundary schools. As a group, we took that information to the PIAA, where we were told that the group’s interpretation of the 1972 law that allowed parochial schools to participate in PIAA competition did not allow for a separate playoff system. While that interpretation is easily refuted, at the very least it showed us the organization’s stance, one that is counter-majoritarian and does not support equity and fairness for our student-athletes.
Looking only at girls’ 3A basketball in Cambria County, you can see an exemplar case study. McSherrytown’s Delone Catholic High School’s championship team of non-boundary all-stars knocked out a once-in-a-generation team from Central Cambria in the Western Final, after having ended the season of a great Penn Cambria team along with two other traditional public schools along the way.
To be clear, we do not seek to diminish the accomplishments of the non-boundary schools’ student-athletes.
However, imagine if the NBA decided that the winner of this year’s Eastern Conference title would be forced to play the Western Conference All-Star team for the championship. The NBA Players’ Association would have grievances and lawsuits filed before the opening tipoff. Our public school student-athletes have no such protections.
Thankfully, state Rep. Scott Conklin from Centre County has recently introduced legislation that would allow the PIAA to have separate playoffs for boundary and non-boundary schools, thereby eliminating the PIAA’s argument that separation would violate the law. While there appears to be bipartisan support for Conklin’s or similar legislation, it is imperative that we advocate for our student-athletes by contacting our local state senators and members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
There is clear support from their constituents. However, please be cognizant that powerful special interest groups are perfectly content with the status quo, so make sure that your voice is heard.
Even if you are not a sports fan or a parent of an impacted student, we should all be advocates for fairness and equity.
For public school student-athletes, the current system could cost them scholarship opportunities which, for some students, might mean the difference between attending or not attending college.
Action is needed now.
Jason S. Moore is Superintendent of Central Cambria School District in Ebensburg.