The idea of separating public and private high school athletic teams in state tournaments is gaining steam.
State representative Aaron Bernstine (Beaver/Butler/Lawrence counties) recently unveiled House Bill 1600, that, if passed, would override Act 219 and initiate separate private and public school state tournaments — as opposed to one comprehensive tournament — in football, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer, girls volleyball, baseball and softball.
The PIAA transfer rule would be wiped out as well, allowing student-athletes to transfer where and when they please with no consequence.
“Right now, this is just a lot of talk,” Mars athletic director and football coach Scott Heinauer said. “A lot of things need to be addressed on this issue and I don't think everything's been addressed with this bill.
“It still has to go through a lot of channels, regardless.”
The PIAA has followed Act 219 since 1972. Act 219 was passed as a means of having all schools treated equally in athletics throughout the state.
Bernstine's bill, known as the Parity Interscholastic Athletics Act, has to pass through the state House of Representatives and Senate to become official.
The WPIAL and other district postseason tournaments would remain all-inclusive. Only the state tournaments would be separate.
“This isn't something we're just throwing out there,” Bernstine said. “We've had a group of people researching this issue for over a year.
“We're not just cutting down a tree here. We've spent a year sharpening the axe.”
The eight sports that would be affected by this proposal are the PIAA sports with at least 50 private schools and 50 public schools.
“I'm a big proponent of having separate tournaments,” Butler athletic director Bill Mylan said. “The private schools have a definite advantage over public schools. Those schools can recruit athletes in. Public schools can't.”
Eliminating the transfer rule is designed to help balance that inequity a bit.
“Ohio has open enrollment and a kid can go to school an hour away,” Mylan said. “I don't think we would see that here, but allowing kids to go to school wherever they want could create more problems.
“Some schools are traditionally strong in certain sports. Here at Butler, we've been strong in basketball the past few years and, yeah, some kids might decide to come here for that.
“But while those kids would transfer in, potential football players would transfer out because we've struggled in that sport. That would be an unfair situation.”
Bernstine emphasized that each time a student-athlete is determined ineligible, “it is because of an adult's decision. We're dealing with kids ages 15, 16, 17 ... They're not determining the school they are enrolling in.
“We shouldn't punish a child because of an adult's decision. When a kid is ruled ineligible due to a transfer situation, that's what we're doing. And those rulings could affect the future of these kids.”
Heinauer is familiar with high school athletics in Florida, a state that has open enrollment.
“It's crazy down there,” he said. “A kid might play football at one school, transfer and play basketball at another. It's all legal. Longtime powerhouses are formed and I don't think we want that.
“I don't think people understand what this proposal could create, about what could be. Kids could move around all over the place.”
Anyone wishing to transfer to another public school would still have to establish residency in that district. Once that is established, nothing could prevent the student from participating in athletics there.
Butler basketball coach Matt Clement said he “doesn't care” whether the state tournaments are split up into public-private or the system remains the same.
This bill does include the public school state champion playing the private school champion at the end of both tournaments to determine an overall champion.
“I usually don't look at proposals like this too closely because it probably won't happen,” Clement said. “The two champions playing each other at the end ... That's not all that different from the way it is now.
“In the end, people are going to remember who the state champion was, not who the public school champion was.”
PIAA district tournaments would remain as they are. Entrants into the respective public and private school tournaments would be determined through a points system.
“This is not a new concept. Other states have been using it,” Bernstine said. “There are 49 other states in the union, many with equitable systems concerning this subject. Is this really that hard to figure out?”
Clement said that if the transfer rule was wiped out, “you could have a free-for-all going on. It would be crazy.”
Bernstine admitted to not knowing how student athletes and their parents would react to elimination of any transfer rules.
“That is an unknown. This bill could be adjusted accordingly,” he said.
Playing against private schools — in the regular season or playoffs — is something Clement enjoys.
“We've always taken pride in battling those schools through the years,” the coach said. “After the game, their kids go home to Fox Chapel, Penn Hills, Burrell, North Allegheny or wherever ... Our kids go have dinner together at Eat n' Park.”
Heinauer hopes to see the transfer rule stay on the books.
“You have to have rules,” he said. “It's as simple as that ... You have to have rules.”