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Legislative committee supports tightening of PIAA transfer rules

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As State Rep. Robert Matzie makes his political rounds for end-of-school-year celebrations, he’s accustomed to fielding questions from constituents. But he’s noticed a change in the most popular topic.

“It’s funny because I went to a few graduation parties in the last month or so, and normally this time of year, everyone wants to just talk about the budget,” Matzie said in a phone conversation this week. “But I had more than one conversation about a quote or two they read from me about the PIAA Oversight Committee, so that tells you the pulse of where the public is and their understanding and/or concern and desire to see something happen.”

The Democrat from the 16th District has heard calls in his district, which encompasses Pittsburgh suburbs Aliquippa and Ambridge, for the PIAA to act on resolving its competitive imbalances in state competition. With his seat on the General Assembly’s PA Athletic Oversight Committee (PAOC), a bicameral body of six legislators tasked with ensuring the PIAA is fulfilling its mission, Matzie has the power to shape the direction of the conversation, which has raged for decades and has recently reached a crescendo.

Matzie brings a unique perspective. A journalism major at Point Park University, he’s worked since his teen years broadcasting high school sports, including play-by-play announcing on the Management Science Associates Sports Network in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Combine that with the particular character of his district — Ambridge is the historical rival of Aliquippa in the high school realm, two former steel mill towns of different and often conflicting racial and socioeconomic compositions — and few legislators are quite so steeped in the ethos of high school athletics. With the PIAA set to act on a spate of proposed rule changes, including a mandatory postseason ban in the first season for athletes transferring, as soon as next week, the Oversight Committee has been played a significant role.

Matzie has plenty of people to remind him of the issue’s resonance in a district where what happens under the lights on a fall Friday night fuels conversation all week. That’s particularly true in Ambridge, which has endured consecutive winless seasons on the gridiron while native sons have prospered elsewhere.

“They have seen it. The folks in the community, at the barbershop, at the diner, at the bar, they understand and have seen it and witnessed it,” Matzie said. “And they’ve seen their team not win a game in three years. It’s definitely something that folks have an understanding about and would like to see something happen. What that something is remains to be seen.”

READ: PaPrepLive’s five-part series on competitive balance in PA

The issue of transfers and recruitment is different in tone but no less severe in District 7. The WPIAL contends with myriad player movement each year, though unlike in Southeastern PA, transfers aren’t easily pigeonholed as public-to-private moves.

Matzie cites several moves involving Ambridge alone. Stephon McGinnis was an underclassman football captain at Ambridge before hopping the Ohio River to Aliquippa. Devontae Watson, an Ambridge native, played basketball at Lincoln Park Charter School for the Arts, before playing at Temple.

In Feb. 2016, when football coach Dan Bradley resigned to take the same position at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, five Bridgers went out the door. One jumped ship for Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, a private school, and two went to Aliquippa. Quarterback Austin French transferred to Beaver Falls and athlete Isaiah McNair landed at Quaker Valley, leading those public schools to PIAA Class 3A titles the last two seasons.

So instead of coalescing around a separation of public and private as in the East, the murmurs Matzie hears focus on the PIAA clamp-down on transfers. The Ambridge test case indicates why District 7 is known as one of the more aggressive in investigating and restricting player movement.

The PIAA has put greater might behind the transfer rule this year. They’ve approved a mandatory 21-day sit-out for in-season transfers and ruled that players taking part in at least 50 percent of the scheduled contests in a season can’t transfer and suit up for a different school. On the table next week is the postseason ban, which garnered positive feedback in a June PAOC hearing.

“Will this new transfer rule work? Probably I think it will help,” Matzie said. “Will it put a red flag on some stuff? I think there will still be some issues over the years, but this should hopefully help alleviate some of the issues, specifically in basketball.”

One thing on which Matzie is clear is that separate championships are not the avenue he would advise. Doing so, in his professional opinion, would require an act of the legislature, which passed an amendment to the Public School Code in 1972 incorporating private and parochial schools into what had previously been an all-public PIAA.

There’s some discord on this matter. Fellow PAOC member, State Sen. Jay Costa, D-43 of Pittsburgh, has said separate tournaments wouldn’t require legislative change, while State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-18 of Bensalem, believes the legislature would have to be involved.

In June, Matzie broached the issue of updating the Public School Code language to include charter schools. But such a move wouldn’t directly impact athletics. If the PIAA wanted separate tournaments to pass muster, Matzie believes the legislature’s imprimatur would be required, which is no small task.

“Separating championships is probably not going to happen, and for us to take it over, for the state to do something, to change it legislatively, the state would be met with court cases,” Matzie said. “The PIAA has the ability to potentially do it themselves obviously within their ruling, but they are saying they would not be able to do it without statutory changes to the law.”

That doesn’t mean it’s an all-or-nothing approach. Other ideas — like a success factor system that reclassifies teams based postseason success and number of transfers in addition to enrollment, or a state clearinghouse to disclose and monitor transfer requests — are at various stages of development.

Matzie hopes tweaking the rules will alleviate some of high school athletics’ pitfalls to accentuate its benefits.

“I firmly believe in athletic competition and how that helps mold young men and women, and teamwork etc.,” Matzie said. “I think it’s a key part of the education process and it’s a core function of growing up, whether it’s in athletics, whether it’s in band, chorus, etc., to have the opportunity to work together in a cohesive unit I think helps mold young men and women into being productive members of society. … (For schools like Ambridge and Aliquippa), this is their opportunity. Friday night, unfortunately for some, that’s the highlight of their life. And one of the things that you try to do as a leader of the community — whether it’s in an elected capacity, as clergy, whether it’s just a mom and dad or member of the quarterback club — you say, ‘This isn’t the highlight of your life. This will help you achieve and get to the next level.’”

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