Mitch Rupert on athletics: HB-1600 bill doesn’t fix issue of public vs. private

The PIAA has every reason to be skeptical about the recently announced Parity in Interscholastic Athletics Act. While Rep. Aaron Bernstine’s (R-Lawrence/Beaver/Butler) bill takes aim at solving the issue of public schools versus private schools in Pennsylvania, it only muddies the waters even further.

Bernstine presented his bill, labeled HB-1600, during a press conference last week in Harrisburg and it was referred to the Committee on Education on Monday. In short, it calls for the separation of public schools and private schools for state championship tournaments in eight PIAA sports. The bill also calls for the elimination of transfer rules among PIAA institutions, allowing students who change schools for any reason to be immediately eligible to compete.

The bill was sponsored by 28 members of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, including Bernstine. If he has his way, the bill will speed through both the House and the Senate and eventually end up on Governor Tom Wolf’s desk for approval.

But this is a bill state legislators need to dive into deeply. They need to have conversations with those who understand the nuances of the PIAA and what it does before making their vote. On the surface, it’s a good-hearted attempt at solving the perceived inequality between public and private schools. Bernstine negotiated with both the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Athletic Equity Steering Committee (led by public school superintendents) to find a resolution that satisfies all parties.

Public schools would no longer have to compete against private schools in the state tournament. Private schools would still be included in district tournaments and could battle for one true state champion when they play the public school state champions in a winner-take-all game following the completion of the two state tournaments.

But separating the state tournaments in this manner isn’t going to solve the problems facing the PIAA. It’s only going to change the current, persistent argument because the bill’s writers did nothing to fix the basis of the inequity of championships in certain sports, which is the selective enforcement of already-on-the-books transfer rules.

Instead of dealing with the basis of the main issue, the parties involved eliminated the transfer rules altogether and tackled the fish-in-the-barrel topic of public versus private schools. But the argument about inequity is rooted in the idea private schools and charter schools have the ability to pull in student-athletes from anywhere, while public school districts are limited to only those students who reside in that school district.

So why wouldn’t that be the issue addressed by this new legislation?

“The transfer rule and the inconsistency of the transfer rule wasn’t worth the hassle,” PA Athletic Equity Steering Committee co-coordinator Leonard Rich said at last week’s press conference.

So because it was difficult, the group chose to quit in finding a solution to the problem. There’s a great lesson for high school athletes.

And instead of addressing the issues in how difficult it is to enforce the transfer rules, it was decided to turn high school athletics into a free-for-all where students are free to choose the situation best for themselves, whether for athletic purposes or not.

The problem with that is now you’ve completely devalued the separation of public and private school playoffs. The idea on the surface is if all schools are under the same rules, then everything is hunky-dory.

The reality is it only changes the previous argument. Instead of public schools being outraged private schools are playing under different rules, they’ll be outraged at the public schools that receive students from outside their boundaries.

New problem. New complaint. Nothing solved.

“The elimination of the transfer rule would expose Pennsylvania athletes and schools to the chaos that has resulted in those states which have done so,” the PIAA said in a statement voicing its opposition to the bill.

The PIAA made extensive movement in the last year to secure some of its transfer rules and also adopted a competition formula which would force teams to move up a classification based on their level of success. Those steps were far more helpful than anything Bernstine has proposed.

This bill is merely window dressing on the real issues. It’s a perceived fix that won’t actually do anything but allow more public schools to call themselves state champions. It will further water down the meaning of the words “state champion,” a process which began when the PIAA decided to expand to six classifications.

But that’s of no concern to Rich and fellow PA Athletic Equity Steering Committee co-coordinator William Hall. Hanging banners in bulk is their priority.

“As far as the state equity committee, we will be able to hang banners as Pennsylvania public school champions and that’s very important to us,” Rich said at last week’s press conference.

“This gives both sides a chance to hang a banner,” Hall said.

Is that really what this legislation is about? Hanging banners? The same generation of adults constantly telling us today’s youth are entitled because of participation trophies has helped to potentially drastically change the landscape of Pennsylvania high school sports so they can see more of their contemporaries hang more banners.

What’s funny is, in his opening statements at last week’s press conference, Bernstine stood at the podium on the dais in front of a handful of reporters and outlined a much different goal.

“We wanted to make sure it was not just about trophies,” he said. “This legislation is not just about trophies and rings and banners.”

And then two of the men he negotiated with for months stepped forward and completely contradicted that assertion.

This is a complex issue and it needs to be handled with appropriate nuance. There are ideas within this bill that could be a good starting point to finding a solution. The willingness of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference to discuss the idea of separate state playoffs is a great starting point.

But when a resolution is agreed upon, it has to be one that is also agreeable and implementable by the PIAA as well. Bernstine’s bill would force the PIAA to figure out exactly how to conduct two separate state championships and how to select the qualifying teams for both public and private championships when the two sides are still competing against one another at the district level.

If that’s not something the PIAA is willing to do or capable of doing, it needs to have some level of veto power before the bill is presented to either the House or Senate. The PIAA charged the Equity Committee and the Catholic Conference with finding a solution to the issues separating the sides in a letter to Hall and Rich dated Dec. 11, 2018.

But in that letter, the PIAA charged the two groups with “providing proposals for consideration that are consistent with the intent of Act 219,” which is the 1972 legislation which the PIAA has used as its basis for not previously dividing public and private school championships. This is not a proposal. This is an attempt at a solution being force-fed to the PIAA whether they like it or not.

It was never supposed to be a unilateral decision, nor should it be. It has to continue to be a dialogue among each party — the Equity Committee, the Catholic Conference, the state legislature and the PIAA. Without all parties involved, the discussion is pointless. The PIAA, according to Bernstine, declined two invitations to review and discuss the legislation, and if true, it’s a major fault on the part of the PIAA.

Coming in on the back end and pointing out everything wrong with the legislation is playing Monday morning quarterback. And that only further escalates the dissension among all those involved.

The student-athletes deserve better than bickering back and forth over such an important issue. The PIAA has recognized there are issues which need to be resolved. Give credit to Bernstine, the Equity Committee and the Catholic Conference for searching for those solutions.

Unfortunately, the current bill is a swing and a miss.

It benefits nobody. And it further devalues championships that should hold more prestige than they currently do, not less.

Mitch Rupert can be reached at 326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at mrupert@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Mitch_Rupert.

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