The usual bite will be in the air Saturday afternoon at West Chester Rustin High School, host of a PIAA Class 3A football semifinal between Middletown and Conwell-Egan.
It won’t have anything to do with the weather or glad tidings, though. It’ll be the all-too familiar scent of controversy, courted year after year by the gaping loopholes pockmarking the PIAA’s governance.
Saturday’s installment will center on Conwell-Egan lineman Tom Burns IV, not because he’s a bonafide blue-chipper or even a potential game-breaker for the Eagles. The symbol of Burns’ presence could exceed the junior’s actual impact on the field.
Burns has generated controversy for the simple trajectory of his season — he’s at his second school, in his second state, in the same season.
He logged a full season as a lineman (and kicker) at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, N.J. He transferred to Conwell-Egan in mid-November, and the laxity of PIAA rules plopped him right into a surprising run to the PIAA semis by the Catholic League side. And for whatever actual influence the lineman has on the final score, his 6-4, 250-pound frame provides a large canvas on which observers can cast their aspersions.
For all the anger that Burns’ move has churned up — particularly in District 11, after Conwell-Egan dispatched Palisades last week — the question isn’t whether or not Burns’ transfer is legitimate. The quandary is if the framework he’s exploiting, within the spirit of fair competition or otherwise, is suitable to withstand families and coaches harboring less scrupulous intentions.
Burns’ presence rankled the ire last week. District 11 chairperson Bob Hartmann pursued the matter with the PIAA but confirmed to Palisades that the transfer had been approved by District 12. (Hartmann declined to comment further on the issue).
District 12 commissioner Joe Sette confirmed that Burns’ transfer was approved via a principal-to-principal signoff, administrators at both schools confirming Burns met specified criteria of the PIAA. And the sending athletic director, Notre Dame’s Richard Roche, emphatically confirmed to the Daily Times that while he wasn’t at liberty to divulge the specifics behind Burns’ decision, it wasn’t athletically motivated.
“The only thing I can say is that this was not motivated by a longer football season,” said Roche, who also mentioned that Burns is a Pennsylvania resident. “It’s not recruiting. It’s not anything of that. There’s nothing that Conwell did or proposed, or did anything that had to do with his moving there.”
Messages to both of the signatory principals — Michael Culnan of Conwell-Egan and Mary Liz Ivins of Notre Dame — as well as to Conwell-Egan athletic director Patrick Donlen were not returned.
The principal-to-principal signoff is crucial to granting immediate eligibility. PIAA bylaws enumerate seven conditions for immediate eligibility of a transferring student: administrative (non-disciplinary) transfers, the “natural break” after eighth grade, change of residence (of parent/legal guardian or foster parent), school closure, boarding school and court assignment. Beyond that, immediate eligibility can be conferred via review of principal certification by a regional panel or district committee, the method that Burns utilized.
Those are the rules, which were observed in this case. But the optics, in an arena where speculation and stereotyping are virulently ubiquitous, are suspect. And the space for interpretation left by the ambiguity of PIAA rules provides a canvas for the worst assumptions (fact-checked or otherwise) by a vocal and angry majority of public-school advocates looking for signs of private-school malfeasance.
“All we can do is deal with the hand that we’re dealt with,” Sette said, striking a pragmatic chord. “All we can do is abide by the bylaws by PIAA as written and constituted. Has this provoked conversation? Absolutely, but who knows what the future is going to hold in terms of a decision or non-decision? All we can go on is the moment, what we’re faced with and what are the bylaws stating in terms of the transfer.”
The Burns affair warrants a closer inspection of PIAA’s toothless statutes. The most obvious highlighted here is the lack of distinction in protocols for in-season vs. out-of-season transfers. Had the direction of Burns’ transfer been reversed, this predicament would’ve been pre-empted: New Jersey sets a mandatory 30-day waiting period for in-season transfers. PIAA has no such provision, and while it’s been discussed (and will likely gain steam), there’s no guarantee it is forthcoming.
This is by no means a Catholic or private school question only; one only need recall the rigmarole surrounding five-star football recruit Micah Parsons’ midseason move from Central Dauphin to Harrisburg, two public schools, last fall, for comparison.
This particular case, however, screams for common-sense discretion. To tell a player like Burns that he can’t have a second football season wouldn’t impinge on his athletic opportunities; any reasonable person would say that the 10 games at Notre Dame afforded him that. Keep cognizant that in the 3A football class on this side of the river, where rosters usually number in the 40s and 50s and lineman rarely tip the scales above 225 pounds, such an introduction as this will entail rancor. And seeing a kid go from a 2-8 team into a playoff hunt in a different state might generate suspicion, warranted or not, given that Conwell-Egan hails from a league likely to generate the state’s 6A and 5A champs and where allegations of recruitment are a constant albatross.
But beyond the low-hanging fruit of this saga is the realization that the entire system is predicated on faith — in the scruples of administrators, in the presupposition that the adults in the matter always place kids’ best interests above their own. And the primacy of the principal-to-principal signoff makes it easy to posit a situation where only two administrators with less that exemplary morals can drastically alter a sport’s landscape across the state.
Those hypotheticals foist more attention on one single adolescent’s decision than is fair. But that’s the consequence created by such openings in the rules.
To contact Matthew De George, email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.
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