Parity in Interscholastic Athletics Act unveiled
Change is looming.
And it could be happening sooner than you think.
After months of negotiations, leaders representing public and nonpublic schools in Pennsylvania joined Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Beaver/Butler/Lawrence) Tuesday to unveil the Parity in Interscholastic Athletics Act, legislation that creates separate brackets for the PIAA’s high school sports playoffs in football, baseball, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer, girls volleyball and softball.
Flanked by Eric Failing, executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, Leonard Rich, co-state coordinator of the Pennsylvania Athletic Equity Steering Committee and superintendent of Laurel School District, and William Hall, co-state coordinator of the Pennsylvania Athletic Equity Steering Committee and superintendent of Millcreek Township School District, Bernstine rolled out House Bill 1600 at the Capitol Media Center in Harrisburg, something he hopes will pass sooner rather than later.
“This is about a group of people, and a team, that have had great relationships that have come together to build what we’ve done, and what we’re unveiling today,” Bernstine said.
“This bill is equally centered and focuses on students and student athletes, for private and public schools across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This impacts hundreds of thousands of students, what we’re talking about today.”
If passed, the bill would create separate playoff brackets for public and private schools as it relates to the PIAA playoffs. The district championships would not be affected.
“At the very end, the one bracket of the public schools and the other bracket of the private schools will come together and they will play in, call it a ‘Super Bowl,’ or a final championship game, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Bernstine.
The bill has several aims, and will alter more than just what happens on the field.
“We also wanted to make sure this was not just about trophies,” said Bernstine. “This legislation is not just about trophies, and rings and banners, this is also about making sure that students are protected. This eliminates the transfer rule, making students immediately eligible for play after transferring schools if he or she meets other eligibility requirements. And we know this has been inconsistently enforced. While the PIAA and districts have tried to do their best, there’s so many mitigating factors that are there. If students are being hurt and harmed, not only athletically, but often times academically, because when they try to transfer schools, they realize they can’t play at a certain place, they may transfer back. We’re eliminating that, and taking that away, to make sure we’re putting students in the best position to succeed both athletically, as well as academically.”
In-season transfer eligibility will be restricted with exceptions granted for certain extenuating circumstances. Bernstine noted that in-season transfers must be made before 50 percent of regular season games are played, unless there are extenuating circumstances.
There is also a forfeiture protection built into the bill. If a team forfeits two or more regular season games in one season, that team will be ineligible for the PIAA playoffs.
“We’ve seen issues across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where private schools or Catholic schools are being blackballed or shut out of regular season play,” said Bernstine. “We have some very stringent pieces in this legislation that ensure that that doesn’t happen, where if a team forfeits two or more games in a season, they would be ineligible to participate in the PIAA playoffs. That protects our Catholic school friends from being blackballed, or shut out from regular season games. We wanted to make sure that that happens, because every student athlete ought to have the opportunity to play, and learn the great life lessons that come from athletics.”
There is also a team sports expansion clause where separate playoff brackets can be used in additional sports.
“We’ve focused on the team sports where we believe the best impact can be made,” said Bernstine. “The bill also allows for separate bracket championships in the future, should some sports gain a significant amount of popularity. So if there are at least 50 public schools and 50 private schools that are participating in a sport, the PIAA would then have the ability to put this system in place.”
Another objective of the bill is to have fair representation on the PIAA board. Bernstine is hoping fairness in governance by the PIAA’s District Committees will be increased “to ensure that each district accurately reflects the makeup of schools in that given area.”
“This is about academics, this is about athletics, and this is abut fairness,” said Failing. “We care about the kids. We want to make sure that all the kids across the Commonwealth have an equal and fair opportunity to participate in sports, and play in sports. I’ve already started getting questions and concerns from people, and I understand that. This is a big change, and we’ve worked very, very hard together. This has been a fantastic partnership between the public schools, the legislature and the private schools to put this together.
“But change can be scary. Please, don’t make any snap judgments, or any snap decisions until you get a chance to fully take a look at the legislation. I think we’ve made a lot of very, very positive steps in this bill to help protect all of our student athletes from all of our different schools, whether they’re public or private. This is about the kids. It’s what we’ve cared about, it’s what we’ve always cared about. We’ll work through all the issues, we’ll get the questions answered, and I think at the end of the day, people are going to be very happy with the work that we’ve done in partnership with one another.”
Such a drastic move to alter what has long been viewed as a disparity among public and private schools in the postseason has long been discussed but never come to fruition. The process for putting this plan together didn’t come together overnight.
“A little over a year ago, I participated in a conference call with a few school districts who were in attendance to organize a grassroots effort to bring about much needed change to the PIAA playoff tournament structure,” said Hall. “At the conclusion of that conference call, we agreed to form the PIAA Equity Steering Committee, and arrange for a PIAA Equity Summit Meeting, that was held last July in State College, Pa. Our goal was simple: To establish a separate playoff system in order to level the playing field for everyone across the state.
“Our efforts to accomplish this within the existing PIAA governance structure were unsuccessful, and on Dec. 11, 2018, we received a letter from the PIAA, which stated the following, ‘The PIAA Board of Directors recommends that the PA Equity Group, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Charter School Coalition attempt to work in unison to find common ground within their respective groups in providing proposals for consideration that are consistent with the intent of Act 219, and further aids in establishment or revision of policies for the betterment of all student-athletes.’”
It’s been a long road, but Tuesday’s announcement appears to be a step forward for all parties involved.
“We stand here today having completed this task, with the introduction of House Bill 1600,” said Hall. “I would like to thank Rep. Bernstine, Mr. Eric Failing, my state coordinating partner, Superintendent Leonard Rich, for their collaboration and persistence in drafting legislation that provides playoff equity and fair competition for all high school students within our Commonwealth.”
“The Pariity Act is a positive correction to a problem to a problem that has evolved since 1972,” added Rich. “All parties here today have the best interest of students at heart. The reason why this legislation is different is due to the partnership, and cooperation of all the stakeholders represented at this conference. We, meaning the public schools, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the legislature, came with the spirit to get something done.”