Varsity Xtra: PIAA foils WPIAL transfer rulings

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The WPIAL feels like it has tried to take a stand against student-athletes who transfer high schools for athletic reasons.

But the WPIAL is wobbling from PIAA chop blocks.

Time after time in recent years, the WPIAL has ruled a student-athlete ineligible, claiming a transfer was, at least partly, for athletic reasons. Such a transfer is against WPIAL and PIAA rules. But most times, the WPIAL's ruling is appealed and the PIAA cuts the legs out from the WPIAL, overturning the WPIAL ruling and making the student-athlete eligible.

In the past four years, 38 student-athletes have appealed their cases to the PIAA after being ruled ineligible by the WPIAL for transferring for athletic intent. The PIAA has overturned the WPIAL 30 times, including six already this school year. It happened again Tuesday when the PIAA overturned the WPIAL and made Angelo Natter eligible to play football at Central Catholic after transferring from Thomas Jefferson.

That means the PIAA has upheld a WPIAL ruling only 21 percent of the time in the past four years, and only once this school year.

The PIAA's decision to overturn the WPIAL in many rulings might be causing a rift between the two organizations that, conceptually, are supposed to work hand in hand in governing high school athletics.

"It has become very frustrating," said Tim O'Malley, executive director of the WPIAL.

The Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association is part of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. The main question is how can two organizations that follow the same set of rules and regulations view things so differently on student-athlete transfers?

In other words, the WPIAL doesn't believe the PIAA is enforcing its own rules.

"We think we're doing what the schools want and what is right by our league. We're confused by what the PIAA is looking at, or not looking at," said Bart Rocco, a WPIAL board of control member and superintendent of Elizabeth Forward schools.

PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi acknowledges a difference in how the WPIAL and the PIAA look at some cases.

"I don't know if it has caused a rift. I think there are concerns where we may have different philosophies of how to handle appeals," said Lombardi, who was selected PIAA executive director this summer. Before that, he was assistant executive director.

Wally Blucas is a PIAA board of control member from the Erie area.

"Seventy percent of our appeal hearings come from District 7 [WPIAL]," Blucas said. "I think it's a combination of things on why there have been [overturned rulings]. One is that the appeal is the second time around and people have more knowledge of what is expected. Information sometimes changes from the first hearing at the district level and some people believe the burden of proof [for transferring for athletic intent] is not clearly demonstrated."

Lombardi said, "Sometimes information comes to light in the appeal hearing that may not have been part of the previous one and that changes the landscape."

Or sometimes people change their stories.

The WPIAL believes there has been clear evidence in a number of the cases that proves athletic intent was involved in a transfer. For example, in a few recent cases, the WPIAL had gathered e-mails and other evidence to show an athlete or their parents were unhappy with a coach for various reasons, including playing time. Article 6 of the PIAA constitution and by-laws states an athlete who leaves a school to avoid playing for a coach or team, or to gain more playing time elsewhere, indicates a transfer for athletic intent.

The penalty for transferring for athletic intent is ineligibility for a year.

The WPIAL and PIAA can't comment on specific cases because most hearings involving transfers are closed to the public and media, at the request of the transfer student.

"There were three specific cases [in the past month] where there was documentation and testimony that there was a conflict either with the parent and coach, or the player and coach," O'Malley said. "But when that information is testified to at the next level [PIAA], it has been rationalized away because the parties involved state that those issues were addressed and taken care of before the transfer, and the PIAA then believes that shouldn't factor into the decision.

"Those are the things that are the most frustrating to us."

Blucas said, "A lot of times what [the WPIAL] rules on is what they think is happening as opposed to what they can actually prove is happening."

Two of the more high profile transfer cases involving WPIAL athletes in the past year were Ryan Skovranko's transfer from West Mifflin to Lincoln Park, and Ryan Lewis' transfer from North Catholic to Montour. Skovranko, a talented basketball player, left West Mifflin in the spring of his freshman year (2011) and transferred to Lincoln Park, a charter school with a strong basketball program. He never moved from West Mifflin, though, and travels by bus almost 50 miles daily to Midland, where Lincoln Park is located. The WPIAL ruled Skovranko ineligible, but the PIAA overturned that ruling.

Ryan Lewis transferred from North Catholic to Montour last year. He told an Internet scouting service that he transferred to Montour in order to get more college exposure in sports, which clearly shows athletic intent. The WPIAL ruled him ineligible and the PIAA upheld the WPIAL. But Lewis appealed again to the PIAA, admitting his reasons for transferring were wrong. He was then ruled eligible for basketball.

"I think a lot of the people on the PIAA board think with their heart. You can't think with your heart in these cases," said Scott Heinauer, a WPIAL board of control member and athletic director/football coach at Mars.

Whenever a high school student-athlete transfers from a public to private school, or private to public, the schools involved must submit paperwork to the WPIAL for eligibility approval. When a student-athlete physically moves with his parents or guardians to another school district, eligibility is approved immediately, unless there is reason to believe athletic intent is involved.

When transferring schools, student-athletes must also obtain a "principal-to-principal sign-off" when transferring schools to prove athletic intent was not involved. Although most cases that come before the WPIAL involve transfers, the WPIAL also must review eligibility cases involving such issues as school attendance, age and an extra year of eligiblity.

It should be pointed out that most student-athletes with eligibility requests are granted eligibility without a hearing. For example, in the 2011-12 school year, the WPIAL reviewed 396 eligibility requests and the league had hearings in only 28 cases. Only 20 individuals were denied eligibility.

Hearings are in front of the WPIAL Board of Control, a 21-member panel made up mostly of administrators, principals, superintendents and athletic directors. If the WPIAL Board of Control rules an athlete ineligible, the athlete can appeal the decision to the PIAA Board of Control.

The PIAA overturns the WPIAL in some cases despite the lack of a "principal-to-principal sign-off." In other words, a school principal at one of the involved schools did not sign off on the transfer because they felt athletic intent was involved.

"I think we have to believe a school principal is telling the truth," Heinauer said. "The principal is a person of authority. If there is evidence of something wrong and the principal doesn't sign off, how can the PIAA just disregard the principal's beliefs?"

The WPIAL believes some districts around the state turn their heads to transfers for athletic intent and the league also believes the PIAA doesn't enforce its own transfer rule.

Lombardi said he would like to establish a committee to examine all PIAA by-laws and policies.

"The real concern goes to the kids who transfer [for athletic intent], get caught and are penalized," O'Malley said. "When there is maybe five percent who are penalized when everyone is doing the same thing, then maybe it's time to change the rule."

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