A coach's perspective on competitive fairness
The Palmyra boys lacrosse team locked in a come-from-behind victory over Hershey to clinch the division title and complete a perfect regular season.
In case you were unaware, on June 20, the Pennsylvania Athletic Oversight Committee met with the PIAA, a former high school football coach, and the PA Catholic Conference to discuss the much-debated issue of competitive fairness in Pennsylvania high school sports.
The central theme was whether private schools have an advantage over public schools and whether changes should be made to the current classification system and transfer rule.
Upon witnessing the meeting, I think it is fairly clear why changes have not been forthcoming.
First, public school supporters firmly believe that they are getting cheated by the system, and private school advocates feel that any complaints by public school supporters are “sour grapes."
The two sides are firmly entrenched and won’t be swayed from their stances.
Next, you have the decision-makers who would rather maintain status quo than make any decisions that would upset anyone or ruffle any feathers, much less do anything that could lead to a legal battle. The tone of the meeting was a simple presentation of opinions and no real debate or discussion took place.
My thoughts on those who spoke at the meeting:
I thought former Manheim Central football coach Mike Williams did an admirable job of presenting a case for separating classifications between boundary and non-boundary schools.
His points were:
1. When the law was made 45 years ago to combine boundary and non-boundary schools, athletic-based transfers were not as prevalent.
2. The statistics clearly show that non-boundary schools win an abundance of district and state championships, though there are far fewer non-boundary schools in Pennsylvania (60 percent of state championships and state runners-up were private/charter schools in last six years in basketball alone, while private/charter schools make up only 30 percent of all schools.)
3. Enrollment of non-boundary schools is based on recruitment and although recruitment for athletic purposes is illegal, there is no way to properly monitor whether non-boundary schools are adhering to this rule.
4. Often, financial aid is offered to private school students, and although illegal to offer financial aid for athletics, again, there is no method in place to monitor this monetary transfer.
I didn’t feel that PIAA’s stance was very encouraging. Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi seemed to play the part of a “politician” and took a very non-committal stance on most of the topics.
For example, he didn’t seem to want to discuss the idea of separate playoffs for boundary and non-boundary schools, instead focusing on the “Indiana Rule” concerning athletic eligibility and talk of adjusting the paperwork concerning transfers. For the record, I don’t feel that the Indiana Rule to be a viable solution because it only really comes into effect after a team has been overwhelmingly successful and won multiple titles.
Concerning transferring issues, there was some discussion of placing the burden of proof that transferring was taking place for legitimate reasons on the receiving school, but again, nothing specific was discussed.
I felt the most disconcerting aspect on Lombardi’s part was that he implied that this whole issue is based on people being upset with who is winning, when in fact the issue is about how and why teams are winning. Meaning that many people associated with public school programs feel that non-boundary schools are “beating” the system and recruiting championships in a manner not available to public schools.
To put it simply, many people feel that private schools are recruiting more talent than can be overcome with a normal student body and any amount of hard work. On a side note, I would also like to express my concern over PIAA’s reluctance to allow coaches to take part on their “competition fairness committee.” I feel that coaches should have much more of a voice and would be able to offer a lot of perspective on the issue.
Now on to the PAOC, which is chaired by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), who clearly stated at the beginning of the meeting that he is not in favor of separating playoffs but gave no reasoning or further explanation that could be debated or discussed.
There were some dissenting points of view among the committee but what stood out was that some members feel that separating boundary and non-boundary schools was a form of punishment to non-boundary schools seeking excellence.
Coach Williams countered that separation was not a punishment and only an effort to classify schools based on a school's ability to seek excellence, again stating that non-boundary schools have methods of pursuing this excellence not available to public schools.
Senator Tommy Tomlinson (R-Bucks) stood out to me as being committed to making the system work for all student athletes and was not opposed to considering reclassification. He seemed to genuinely want to place schools in a position to compete with other schools that have similar opportunities for achieving success.
The PA Catholic Conference was represented by the Director of Education and its legal counsel.
As anticipated, they labeled any separation in classification as discrimination and went on to present some skewed and one-side statistics in making the case that most non-boundary schools cannot compete successfully with public schools. They then went on to make some statements about why some private schools are so successful that I would consider to be very questionable.
1. Their parents encourage them to start playing at a very young age. I guess public school parents are not as encouraging?
2. Community support is superior. I would ask why public schools draw so many more fans in playoffs if this is the case?
3. By the time they get to high school, private school athletes have been playing together longer and are more prepared than public school kids. Personally, I have NOT seen this to be the case and am aware of multiple state champions who have had players arrive for their junior or senior years.
Many people have stated that there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to this issue but a solution MUST be found nevertheless. There is no greater fear in sports at any level, than the fear that someone is cheating or that the contests are not fair and that is very much the case in Pa. high school athletics right now. It is my contention that separating boundary and non-boundary schools for district and state playoffs is the only viable solution for several reasons.
First, no one gets penalized or discriminated against in a postseason split. Both boundary and non-boundary schools would have opportunities to compete for district and state titles. Not only would non-boundary schools likely have a greater opportunity of achieving a title because there are fewer of them, but I dare say those titles would be perceived as even more prestigious because of the belief that they are acquiring the best athletes in the state.
Second, many public school advocates feel that non-boundary schools abuse the transfer rules available to them and it is widely accepted that there is not a workable solution to monitoring them. If public schools do not have to compete against these transferring players in order to accomplish some level of success, I believe that much of the concern over these transferring players would dissipate.
Lastly, the current system of using enrollment to make classifications DOES NOT WORK. Enrollment is only an appropriate method of classification if enrollment is a numerically random measure of a body of students. In public schools, enrollment is as random as it can possibly be based on who lives in a given district during a certain time period. There are laws in place to control attempts to cheat this system. Enrollment in private schools, by their own admission that recruitment is necessary, is anything but random and completely eliminates any possible competitive balance that could be achieved by comparing enrollments.
Imagine two competitive basketball teams that both have good coaches and work hard to make their programs better. In the offseason, one team recruits two or three kids who happen to be outstanding basketball players. These two or three new kids do not affect enrollment to the point of changing classification, but competitive balance between the two teams has been changed dramatically!
This hypothetical situation is a very real occurrence and is the reason for this issue in high school sports today.
Battistelli is an assistant girls basketball coach at Northern Lebanon High School.