More than 40 years ago, the Pennsylvania Legislature called an audible on high school sports.
“We feel that the 1972 legislation was a landmark movement and it brought the schools together,” said Melissa Mertz, associate executive director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Lawmakers passed a bill requiring the PIAA to accept private schools. The change gave public schools more competition when fighting for state championships.
However, some Pennsylvanians want to go back to the old rules.
“The PIAA does a great job, but they have to work within the parameter of the rules that have been set out,” Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre) said.
Conklin authored a bill to separate public and private high school playoffs.
“When you look at the inherent inequity within the playing field the way it’s done today, all that I’m asking is sportsmanship should be the main course of why children are playing,” Conklin said.
His bill would only split the playoffs. Public and private schools could still play each other during the regular season.
In 2018, more than 100 school districts discussed leaving the PIAA because of an uneven playing field. Public schools said private schools, also known as non-boundary schools, have an athletic advantage. Many public schools say it is not fair because private schools can recruit.
“Although they say they don’t recruit, I will tell you that many parents have come to me and said that their children have been given other opportunities,” Conklin said.
The PIAA does not allow any schools to recruit for athletic reasons.
“We do have penalties in place that if a coach is found to have recruited a student, that we do have penalties under our Article 13 that would apply to that coach. We absolutely have that in place now,” said Mertz.
However, some private schools recruit students for academic and financial reasons.
“As Catholic schools, we have to worry about getting students. Sometimes our enrollment is down and we have to go out there and get students of all kind, not necessarily just athletes,” said Al Gnoza, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. “We want to fill our schools so we don’t have to close them.”
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference has not taken a side on the issue but says it is willing to discuss any PIAA rule changes.
“Is the system perfect? No. Maybe here and there we would like a tweak. We are happy with the way things are, but we have been working with the PIAA over the years to address any concern, any issues,” said Gnoza.
Private schools make up 24 percent of the PIAA and have won 22 percent of championships since joining in 1972. Since 2000, private school basketball programs have dominated the state tournament. Boys teams have won 60 percent and girls teams have won 64 percent of the titles.
“It became quite clear to me that the sportsmanship aspect wasn’t the driving factor, it was the winning aspect,” Conklin said.
Over the past year, the PIAA has implemented new rules to address concerns. If an athlete transfers in the 10th grade or later, they have to sit out the postseason the following year unless they can prove a hardship.
“People are tapping the breaks. They aren’t just transferring and thinking there’s not going to be an issue or this isn’t going to be questioned,” Mertz said. If an athlete transfers during the season and already played in 50 percent or more of their regular-season games at the previous school, then they cannot finish their season at the new school.
“We think we have a good system, and we think we’ve put in a lot of changes that will certainly help level the playing field or get rid of the questions that are out there,” said Mertz.
The PIAA is also considering a 7A classification, but all the rules would still apply.
It is is not in favor of separating the playoffs but will if Conklin’s bill is passed into law. The legislation is still in the early stages and needs a co-sponsor.
Click here for PIAA championships comparison data dating back to 1972.
Click here for a full list of PIAA state championships archives from 1920-2008.