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Private Problem, Public Debate: Recruiting, transfers combustible ingredients in ‘competitive balance’ remedy

This is Part 4 of a four-part series looking at the public-vs-private schools debate in the PIAA. Part 1 covers the disproportionate share of PIAA titles won by private schools, while Part 2 recaps the complex entanglements between the legislature and the PIAA. Part 3 covers the niche that charter schools play in the picture. Private schools are winning an escalating share of PIAA titles, the numbers show. The roots of the current schools arrangement in the PIAA tracks back decades, as does a frosty relationship between the PIAA and the General Assembly, which has positioned itself to influence the athletic body. Spike the mixture with the proliferating charter school movement, add a dash of rural-vs.-urban hostility, then cut along socioeconomic divisions in a diverse state and add a vast geography that doesn’t make trips like Scranton-to-Allentown feasible most weeknights, and you’ve got a bubbling cauldron. Many of the more than two dozen administrators and stakeholders surveyed have voiced concerns about the current system but stopped short of supporting a cleavage of public and private into separate championships. The reasoning is refreshingly unspoiled by dogmatic adherence: Whatever the ills of the system, many prefer improvements from within than demolition in search of some utopia. The guiding query is what the PIAA’s project aims for. Is it to legislate who wins? Is it to make it harder for a certain set to prevail year after year, creating conditions where schools can cycle in and out of prominence to keep everyone happy? Is it just a matter of doling out more trophies to mollify a larger segment of the population? The current movement seems fertile for new ideas. With the PIAA’s Board of Directors exploring options via a special competition committee meeting again this week, the door is open to address the mounting imbalance. PIAA Executive Director Robert Lombardi has bandied about the implementation of success factors that elevate teams in class after certain amounts of championships. Even proposing such numerical quantifiers of success — or its close counterpart, enrollment multipliers based on private-school or other status — marks a step toward addressing the pervasive inequality. This could be yet another in a long line of false flats in the PIAA’s descent to its current predicament. Or this could be a pivot toward a fresh set of ideas. *** Ask enough people about the PIAA’s public/private puzzle, and it won’t be long until governance of transfers and recruiting is broached.

Chelsea Lasky (22) of Villa Maria lifts the championship trophy at the conclusion of the 2009 PIAA Class 2A girls basketball state championship game at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa. Villa Maria defeated York Catholic, 56-51.

Recruiting is the speeding of high school athletics: No one is doing it until they’re caught. Let’s put that another way: Every player cleared to change schools has been vetted according to PIAA rules and no demonstrable recruiting has been detected. The PIAA’s constitution operates from a presumption of eligibility, outlining eight criteria by which athletes are deemed as transferring for non-athletic reasons and entitled to immediate eligibility. These conditions include change of residence of a parent or guardian, the “natural break” transfer in matriculating from a junior high/middle school and closure of a previous school. Waivers can also be granted principal-to-principal or via district committees and regional panels. Conditions for permissible recruitment exist, but the bylaws enumerate 13 conditions that may indicate athletically motivated or illicit recruitment. “Recruiting for athletic purposes is directly contrary to fundamental interests of PIAA and its member schools and any school engaged in such conduct should do so with the expectation that it will be treated harshly upon proof of such conduct,” reads Article VI, Section 8 of the bylaws. “Recruiting which is materially motivated in some way by an athletic purpose is contrary to the fundamental objectives of (1) keeping athletics in their proper place and subordinate to academics; (2) protecting student-athletes from ‘exploitation’ by adults and those having interests which might not be consistent with those of the student; and (3) maintaining competitive equity and a level playing field among PIAA member schools.” Soon enough, the transfer discussion leads to suburban Pittsburgh, where upholding the rules by hook or by crook is worn like a badge of honor. “We are of the opinion that athletes should be fully entitled to attend school if they’re properly motivated,” Tim O’Malley, director of the WPIAL (District 7), told PA Prep Live. “If they are athletically motivated, their eligibility should be constrained.” O’Malley’s assessment follows a strict reading of PIAA regulations. But some regard District 7’s transfer stance to be fanatical in its zeal. In an average year, O’Malley and Jack Fullen, the WPIAL’s treasurer and a long-time AD who is now assistant superintendent of the Blackhawk School District, estimate the association receives 225 to 275 requests for waivers and holds 32 hearings. The PIAA’s verbiage, though well-intentioned, purports to uncover the content of the hearts and minds of athletes and parents. It assigns the burden of proof to the departing school principal, who faces a no-win situation: Blithely sign off on a sketchy transfer or fight to retain a student against his or her wishes. Investigations require onerous outlays of resources; the upside, even if a school uncovers unsavory intent, carries unflattering optics of impinging on a teenager’s opportunities. Like the transfer plague afflicting the NCAA, imposing limitations on athletes when coaches are free to uproot on a whim smacks of hypocrisy. Sanction disproportionately encumbers athletes rather than the adults responsible for them. Athletes’ opportunities in four seasons are inherently scarcer than those of coaches who can be employed for decades. As long as athletes are jockeying for a share of the $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships annually granted by the NCAA (pdf), they are heavily incentivized to capitalize by whatever means on an intrinsically limited audition stage (particularly if students see sports as their only means of advancement). When students’ pursuits run afoul of competition decrees, tension builds like tectonic plates at a fault line. It finds release in narratives that pin on adolescents maladies that suffuse the entire sporting realm. The contradictions precipitate proposals like one proffered by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Director’s Association (PSADA) in April that impermissible transfers after the ninth grade “natural break” could be impugned by a year of ineligibility. They lead to a sardonic sentiment expressed by several figures — that students cite religion to attend a private school in ninth grade, then decry the expense and return to public school if they find adverse conditions. But importantly, District 7’s search for a corrective doesn’t seek extremes. “We in the WPIAL are not necessarily of the opinion that you can fix that by segregation (of public and private), by placing them in their own league,” O’Malley said. “It’s not effective, and we don’t think that will happen.” Instead, O’Malley takes aim at better enforcing the spirit of prohibition on recruiting. Stricter adherence equalizes treatment and more effectively deters transgressions, rewarding those following the rules by more frequently penalizing those who don’t. “Our current rule is so inconsistently applied that we treat kids unfairly,” O’Malley said. “Some kids we hold accountable, some we don’t, and that is not fair. We need a rule that is much more objectively defined and restricts those transfers.” “I would take exception to the whole idea of boundary vs. non-boundary, but a broader scope would be recruiting vs. non-recruiting,” said Aaron Straub, athletic director at Elk County Catholic in District 9 and the Private Schools Representative of the PIAA board. “That’s not a public issue, that’s not a private issue, that’s an everybody issue. If schools aren’t willing to follow the regulations in place, then you have chaos.” The rules, Fullen and O’Malley stress, prevent athletes from being used as pawns in the machinations of adults. That’s the moral compass that must point due north in any reconsideration of transfer language. But the transfer rule can serve another purpose to quell mounting animosity. Perhaps the only thing worse than being conquered by a private school is losing to one that deploys players residing in your district. Indeed, transfers particularly rankle the ire when a departing school invests heavily in an athlete only to see him or her bolt to greener pastures. Minimizing transfers that occur late in high school could rid some of the clouds of discontent. “Rules are in place to make sure that the playing field is level,” Straub said. “When programs or schools don’t abide by the rules or the constitution, when people don’t want to abide by it, when they don’t want to abide by the letter of the law or the spirit of the law, that’s where you have issues.” *** There’s an omnipresent figure at PIAA meetings that most might not immediate recognize. Sean McAleer is the director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs arm of Catholic operations working hand in glove with the 10 dioceses in the Commonwealth on community and educational matters. McAleer is not a member of the PIAA’s board, but he frequently offers testimony to the legislative Athletic Oversight Committee (PAOC) and has an ear to the ground on issues affecting his constituency. He’s enjoyed a long view of the ascendancy of a sizeable contingent of the private school population that has enjoyed particular athletic success. McAleer has the ear of legislative decision-makers, and his philosophy on athletics often echoes that of State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, right down to the pugnacity with which he defends Catholic school practices. “There are procedures and protocols in place,” McAleer told Pa Prep Live recently. “If there is any kind of recruiting, then come down hard. That’s what your district meetings are for. …

Members of Roman Catholic's basketball team lift the 2015 PIAA Class AAAA trophy in Hershey. (AP file)

“(Catholic school) athletes are no different than public schools athletes. They’re all athletes. We’re just trying to find fair education and sports. … If we recruit, then show me. It’s not the coaches that are recruiting, it’s the programs. If you have a good program, then a lot of times the parents will do what they can to get to the program. And there’s nothing illegal with that.” McAleer confronts the realities of Catholic school existence, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Rounds of school closures have devastated several dioceses, and Philadelphia has undergone successive bouts of consolidation in an attempt to return schools to more stable footing. The reality, as DiGirolamo elucidated, is that parents choosing religious education double up on expenditures through taxes and tuition. It’s not the promise of championships that lures students to Catholic schools but the prospect of a well-rounded education — as Archbishop Wood athletic director and District 12 chairman Joe Sette puts it, the 3As of academics, arts and athletics, aspirationally in that order. “I think we provide for parents and for young people the total package,” Sette said. “Is athletics part of that package? Absolutely. Is it the only part of that that parents are looking at? I would argue no.” Private schools are constrained in their investment to what funds they can raise without benefit of tax revenues. This often requires “second-class” facilities, in McAleer’s words; the dearth of dedicated football facilities in the Catholic League, for instance, offers a convincing testament. The logic is less concrete in deciphering why private schools account for a share of PIAA playoff berths roughly equivalent to their proportion of PIAA membership, but then end up walking away with an outsized share of championships. Many cite the expansiveness of the CYO program, which sponsors many sports to the elementary school “novice” level, fostering a fruitful environment for young athletes and a dependable pipeline of talent via feeder schools. McAleer estimates that “80 to 90 percent” of athletes at Catholic high schools participated in CYO. But that isn’t documented by the PCC, nor could Pa Prep Live corroborate that figure with either Sette, the CYO’s head office within the Philadelphia Archdiocese or several other high schools. (Even if 80 percent is correct, that would still allow, for instance, 12 players on a 60-man football roster to be outside the CYO umbrella, which could have a significant impact.) McAleer offers a vigorous defense of Catholic school practices, and as Lombardi has stated, they overwhelming have been judged to operate within the rules. What McAleer concedes is that there’s a certain stigma he and his block may never fully escape. “There’s always going to be a winner,” McAleer said. “Some folks get upset that they don’t win and don’t understand why they don’t win. Sometimes luck and other scenarios come in. … But I don’t see it changing the landscape of athletics in the state.” *** The most pertinent question before the competition committee of the PIAA Board of Directors is one that Timothy Liam Epstein poses emphatically: What are you trying to enforce? If the aim is for more public school champions, then Epstein, a partner at Duggan Bertsch law firm in Chicago and a sports law expert who has published research on competitive balance in high school athletics, recommends starting them with more points on the scoreboard. Enrollment multipliers, a polarizing topic in Illinois where they’ve been enacted and survived court challenges, or partitioning into classes doesn’t necessarily solve that problem. “What multipliers do, is you’re trying to legislate wins,” Epstein said. “And if you look at the results when you have multipliers in place, non-boundary schools still win disproportionate share.” Epstein instead advocates transparency and honesty on the malaise a state endeavors to combat. If it’s transfers, beef up enforcement. If it’s recruitment, police it. If it’s scholarships, perform the audits. Epstein doesn’t see boundary/non-boundary status as passing statutory muster for differentiating schools. His analysis of athletic associations around the country shows resilience by the standout programs, public and private alike: They win championships, no matter what class they’re in. Epstein isn’t the only one that bristles at the equating of non-boundary with success. The popular argument, reinforced in court cases in Illinois and elsewhere, is that demarcation of public-vs-private most harms small private schools that don’t emphasize athletics. In that vein, some see the hostility as stemming from the sustained success of an elite class, with public/private as a scapegoated explanation. And that stimulus, if stripped of passions, can be harnessed for practical benefit. “It’s a success problem; it’s not a private school problem,” Whitehall Athletic Director and District 11 Chairman Bob Hartman said. “When private schools aren’t successful, it’s not a conversation.” “I absolutely think the success piece is a large part of all of the complaints,” Lombardi said. “However I don’t have a better solution at this time.” Hartman adopts a refreshing approach. A veteran wrestling coach in one of the state’s hotbeds, he’s seen his share of recruiting in every permutation between public and private schools. He’s watched successful programs built in manners generally viewed as unsavory, and others built according to the rules that achieved as much success. The converse of both conditions is true, too. At a building level, Hartman internalizes this push and pull. If athletes are being poached by other schools outside of the rules, he has recourse. If they’re choosing non-public paths, then how can he constructively change the school’s offerings? “It’s our job at Whitehall to do what we need to do to keep our kids here,” he said. “It’s an internal image. I need to look in the mirror and see the real image, not a distorted one. Why are we losing kids? If we’re losing kids in specific sports, what do we need to do to keep them here?” “We want to win and we hate to lose. But at the end of the day, winning isn’t the most important thing for our school district,” said Gerry Schwille, the longtime athletic director of Northern York High School in District 3. “Some school districts, if they don’t win a basketball title, their coaches get fired. We’re all about education-based athletics in our school district.” Perhaps the best answer to these conundrums dashes the strict partisanship that often flourishes across the ideological divide. If concurrent battles in 49 other states are any indication, the magic bullet that soothes all consternation is elusive if not imaginary. Insistently congregating around any singular scheme in the hopes it will address all issues is at best counterproductive, at worst deluded escapism. There is a positive, though: Most of the people surveyed, particularly grizzled veterans who have grappled with the issues for decades understand that reality. Generally, their outlook is clear-eyed and forthright, with an honest conception of the scope of the challenge and a desire to tailor improvements. “No one has a perfect solution to this,” Lombardi said, “and that’s why we’re trying to find a system that provides for competitive balance.”

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