State Rep. Scott Conklin discusses PIAA playoff legislation
Change could be coming to the PIAA playoff system. At least, a host of high school coaches and State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, hope so.
On Thursday, Conklin introduced legislation that would help establish separate playoffs for public and private schools in Pennsylvania. The Democrat from Centre County intends to change a 1972 law, freeing the PIAA to take action on its current postseason format.
The House bill, officially titled HB-919, will be introduced for co-sponsorship early next week, per Conklin. He expects cooperation from both sides of the aisle and hopes movement on the bill will come by the summer.
“This is about safety. This is about fairness. This is about giving an opportunity to every child. But what this doesn’t do is punish anybody,” Conklin said at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, surrounded by select board members of the PSFCA. “This isn’t set in stone. ... What we’ve heard from the PIAA is that, ‘We can’t change (the postseason format) because with the law in 1972, we can face litigation.’ Well, we pass this piece of legislation, you don’t have to face litigation anymore.”
Added former Cedar Cliff head football coach Jim Cantafio: “What (Rep.) Conklin is doing is opening the door for the PIAA to sit down and look at the situation. ... It’s going to open the door for opportunity.”
Back in 1972, Act 219 authorized Pennsylvania private schools to participate with public schools in postseason competition. And the PIAA has maintained that separate postseasons can’t be created due to this law.
Specifically, the 1972 law states the following: “Private schools shall be permitted, if otherwise qualified, to be members of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.”
Conklin’s legislation would change this portion of the bill to the following: “For the purposes of playoffs and awarding championships, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association shall establish separate playoff systems and championships for athletics for public schools and private schools.”
While the seven current and former coaches alongside Conklin nodded their heads and agreed with the representative, Conklin did meet opposition in the room. Tom Smith — Bishop McCort’s assistant head football coach — attended the open media session, taking issue with the bill and what might come of it.
“I think things are awesome the way they are,” Smith later said to a group of reporters. “There are many years when Aliquippa and Clairton, powerhouses out of Pittsburgh, won state title after state title after state title, and no one said a word. All of a sudden you get some private schools winning, winning and winning, and now they’re up in arms. Those things are cyclical.”
Since Act 219 was signed in 1972, data has shown a competitive imbalance between boundary schools and non-boundary schools (private, parochial and charter institutions that can accept out-of-state, out-of-region transfers). According to a July memo from concerned public parties to the PIAA, 87 non-boundary schools have won 444 PIAA championships from the 1972-73 season through 2017-18. And 52.7 percent of those championships have been won by just 19 institutions — a staggeringly top-heavy figure.
Per PIAA statistics, non-boundary schools have won 64 percent of championships in boys’ basketball and 59 percent in girls’ basketball from 2008 to 2018. For football, it’s split down the middle, 22 to 22, between boundary and non-boundary schools.
On July 18, the PIAA tried to curb this imbalance and appease public school athletic departments by implementing a new transfer rule. The PIAA passed sweeping rules that would require students in grades 10-12 who transfer to prove hardship. Otherwise, they would be required to sit out during that year’s postseason.
In addition to the transfer rule, the PIAA voted for a new competition balance formula for football and basketball, which would force teams with high enrollment, high number of transfers and consistent postseason success to move up a classification.
Those changes were passed 26-2 and were put in place prior to the 2018-19 school year. But it wasn’t enough. Not according to those affected.
“Is this the answer to leveling the playing field between border schools and non-border schools? If it is, it’s not enough,” Penns Valley athletic director Nate Althouse told the CDT at the time. “It’s a Band-Aid. It’s a deterrent.”
Five months later, Conklin believes his bill could lead to a permanent solution.