Those seeking separate state tournaments for Pennsylvania high school athletes got a boost Tuesday morning with the introduction of the Parity in Interscholastic Athletics Act, or House Bill 1600.
State Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Lawrence County, unveiled it during a news conference at the Capitol in Harrisburg.
The bill would require the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to institute separate state tournaments for public and private schools, with the public and private school champs then meeting in a crossover game to determine an overall state champion in each classification. New Jersey does something similar in a variety of sports, but not in football.
“At the very end the one bracket of the public schools and the other bracket of the private schools would come together, and they will play, call it a Super Bowl, or final championship game,” Bernstine said.
The separate tournaments would be held only in football, baseball, softball, girls and boys basketball, girls and boys volleyball, and girls and boys soccer.
How charter schools would be categorized was not addressed at the news conference.
The demand for separate tournaments has put a cloud over Pennsylvania scholastic athletics for years, particularly at state playoff time, when schools with enrollment boundaries compete with schools without boundaries.
The tension was acerbated with the inclusion of the Philadelphia Catholic League in the PIAA in the 2008-09 school year.
Even if the bill becomes law, nothing would change at the league or district level. The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, which features two Catholic schools, would operate as constructed.
The bill would pertain only to the structure of the state tournaments.
For years, the PIAA has said it can’t hold separate tournaments because a 1972 law forces it to accept private schools as members. Others say the 1972 law doesn’t preclude the PIAA from holding separate tournaments and called only for the PIAA to accept private school membership.
That debate would be irrelevant if the bill is passed.
Perhaps the biggest reason the PIAA has been reluctant to create separate tournaments is fear of litigation from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.
Robert Lombardi, the executive director of the PIAA, said as recently as March that if a move to form separate tournaments takes place, it would have to come from the state Legislature.
“If they change the law, we’ll be glad to follow the law,” Lombardi said. “We’ve always said that. I’m glad they agree this is a legislative issue.”
Litigation seems unlikely if this proposal is passed because Eric Failing, director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, participated in the formation of the bill and voiced his approval at the news conference.
“This is a big change and we’ve worked very, very hard together,” Failing said. “This has been a fantastic partnership between the public schools, the Legislature and the private schools.”
He said “change can be scary,” but urged skeptics to read the measure before making a snap judgment.
“I think we’ve made a lot of very, very positive steps to protect all of our student-athletes, whether they’re public or private,” Failing said. “This is about the kids. It’s what we’ve always cared about. We’ll work through the issues and get the questions answered.”
Asked what changed the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference’s view on separate tournaments, Failing pointed out the legislation addresses more than separate playoffs.
The bill would eliminate all transfer rules, except for midseason transfers, he said. Schools no longer can be kicked out of leagues, nor blackballed from regular season games.
“Schools in rural areas need teams to play. And if we have schools refusing to play us, that hurts our kids,” he said. “No one wants that to happen. So we struck a compromise.”
The lessening of the transfer rules would appear to be against the wishes of the public schools.
The PIAA has had transfer rules in place for years, forbidding transfers for athletic reasons. Those rules were tightened in a big way last year when the Pennsylvania Athletic Equity Committee was formed and began pushing for separate tournaments because of complaints of an uneven playing field and the ability of private schools to attract kids from an unrestricted area.
The PIAA’s Lombardi made his displeasure clear in a written response Tuesday titled “PIAA opposes equity committee end around.”
“The elimination of the transfer rule would expose Pennsylvania athletes and schools to the chaos that has resulted in those states which have done so,” he said. “It requires little research to see what has happened in states that permit open transfers. AAU teams, shoe companies and other third parties promote consolidation of top athletes at ‘preferred’ schools, which result in powerhouses where schools simply reload each year with high profile athletes.”
However, Leonard Rich, co-state coordinator of the Pennsylvania Athletic Equity Steering Committee and former superintendent of Laurel School District in Lawrence County, didn’t seem to mind that transfers will happen with much more frequency if the bill is enacted.
“As far as transfers go, there have been rules on the books whether it’s the new rule or the old one, and the only thing that has been consistent has been the inconsistent enforcement and inconsistent interpretation,” Rich said. “So depending upon the district and where you live, similar circumstances have led to different rulings.
“As far as (private) schools loading up, if you will, we’re going to separate playoffs. So we believe that if we’re all on the same playing field and competing with similar types of schools, the inconsistency of the transfer rule wasn’t worth the effort.”
William Hall, co-state coordinator of the Pennsylvania Athletic Equity Steering Committee and superintendent of Millcreek Township School District in Erie County, agreed.
“The issue for the publics (has) been that the privates have been able to build up athletic powerhouses with transfers, and come playoff time, the public schools get bounced early in the first and second rounds,” Hall said. “But with the separation of playoffs, those private schools will play other schools with the same recruiting advantage, and for us in the public sector, we’re going to have schools who will now compete on a more level playing field and will be able to move on through the first and second rounds and closer to a state title.”
The new bill would give more private schools a chance to compete for a state title, because there could be as many as 32 entries in a public school bracket and another 32 schools in a private school bracket.
Lombardi said the PIAA board dislikes the idea of segregating the classifications and the tournaments.
“Having 18 percent of private schools being guaranteed 50 percent of the championship entries promotes inequities in postseason opportunities,” he said. “(And) extending sports seasons to host an additional tournament of champions between private and public schools serves no educational purpose.”
The additional layer of competition, Lombardi said, “would cause scheduling issues, would be detrimental to the health and safety of student-athletes and their possible participation in subsequent sport seasons.”
Regarding the “Super Bowl,” Rich, the steering committee coordinator, said he didn’t believe the winner would overshadow the public and private bracket champs.
“Pennsylvania public schools will be able to compete against other Pennsylvania public schools and hang a public school championship banner,” Rich said. “We felt that was a good compromise. There will be public school state champions. I don’t think it will tarnish the (public school) championship when it comes to the last game. People understand the ground rules. As far as the state equity committee is concerned, we will be able to hang public school championship banners and that’s important to us.”
Bernstine couldn’t predict when the legislation would be acted on, but hoped the bill would move swiftly.
“This wasn’t a couple of people who went rogue here — we’ve brought everybody to the table you can imagine ... everybody was invited,” Bernstine said. “When you have something where all sides are on board, and the public is pretty darn on board with this, the Senate will do its job and impose the will of the people.”
Lombardi said PIAA had no hand in the legislation and is not on board.
“This legislation is a disappointing effort at an end run around the Pennsylvania Athletic Oversight Committee’s position,” he said. “PIAA will continue to work with the PAOC to develop competitive balance among all member schools. PIAA believes that this proposed legislation is ill-advised, contrary to the purposes of PIAA, is unfair to our membership and should be rejected.”
WPIAL Executive Director Tim O’Malley told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he had not read the entire bill but knew enough to say, “Absolutely the WPIAL would not be in favor of this. Even getting rid of the transfer rule would create chaos. Is the existing transfer rule totally effective? Absolutely not. People going to wherever they want to play is counterproductive to what interscholastic athletics is about.”
J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf, said he has not had a chance to review the just-introduced bill. Abbott said that review would take place as the legislative process moves forward.