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Commentary: Separating PIAA playoffs a matter of fairness for student-athletes

State Rep. Scott Conklin discusses PIAA playoff legislation

Conklin introduced legislation that would separate playoffs for public and private schools in Pennsylvania.
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Conklin introduced legislation that would separate playoffs for public and private schools in Pennsylvania.

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 post-season 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 2018. 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.

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 boys basketball playoffs. Although traditional public schools make up over 80 percent of the PIAA member schools, only half of the 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 are traditional public high schools, and there are 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 over 80 percent of 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. Ninety-four 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.

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 tip-off. Our public school student-athletes have no such protections.

Thankfully, state Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Rush Township) 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 Pennsylvania senators and members of the state House of Representative.

There is clear support from their constituents. However, please be cognizant that powerful special-interest groups are perfectly content with the status quo. 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 the Central Cambria School District.
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