High School

“Mr. High School Sports” – Editorial: Let Them Play

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Terrance Stepoli

Terrance Stepoli, who has played for Monessen and Greensburg C.C. along with his brother Josh, an offensive lineman and Division I recruit, is one transfer athlete who has lost and regained eligibility in recent years. (Photo credit: Mike Kovak/Washington Observer-Reporter)

By Matt Popchock

(mpopchock@kdka.com)

Some student-athletes who have left one school and joined another for athletic reasons received good news from the PIAA on Friday.

At its Board of Control meeting in Mechanicsburg, the governing body of high school sports in Pennsylvania ruled that those who leave an athletic program that disbands for financial reasons can transfer to either a neighboring school district or a private school within the original district to play the same sport and be eligible immediately.

Admittedly I do not have the same intimate relationship with leaders of the WPIAL and/or PIAA as others who cover scholastic sports in this area, but I know that both organizations are, in the simplest term, bureaucracies.

I also know that bureaucracies, for all their good intentions, sometimes make things more complicated than they need to be. Seeing the way both organizations, in recent years, have handled student-athletes who presumably switch schools with athletic intent is a perfect example.

How bad has it gotten? State legislators actually threatened to disband the PIAA if it did not pass the latest rule change.

The change is, without a doubt in my mind, a step in the right direction by the PIAA. However, I propose a much simpler solution to transfer cases as a whole: just let kids play where they want.

Growing up happens in a heartbeat. I was never a five-star athlete by any means, nor did I ever switch high schools, but it would have absolutely broken my heart if any authoritative figure, for any reason, took away a fraction of that heartbeat, thus  depriving me of time that could be spent making new friends, getting physically fit in a disciplined environment, and, above all, representing my school.

If those who govern scholastic sports throughout Pennsylvania are for preserving the innocence of those sports, which means making them about the kids, not themselves, they will protect the interests of the student-athletes. The percentage of those who will make a living out of sports, even in this ever-changing world, is still generally slim. To deprive some of these kids of what might be some of the best times of their lives as students just to make a point doesn’t seem practical; nevertheless, the WPIAL has tried to make that point by repeatedly cracking the whip on transfers.

That point has been ignored by the PIAA. Recently, when a student-athlete transfers with what appears to be athletic intent, it has been par for the course for the WPIAL to rescind the player’s eligibility, for the player to then appeal his or her case to the PIAA, and for the PIAA to then overrule the WPIAL.

I believe there are well-meaning people running the WPIAL. But in this case, I also believe they need to realize they’re fighting a losing battle.

Clearly the PIAA doesn’t want to adopt the same stubborn position. Furthermore, the PIAA has implied, with past rulings, that it wants to allow transfers who are serious about continuing their lives as athletes beyond high school to go places where they can thrive and stand a better chance of getting noticed, and ultimately, recruited. That makes perfect sense.

I’m sure these well-meaning people who run the WPIAL just want parity. That parity will still exist regardless of where these kids end up.

Between 2001 and 2008, North Catholic was the final destination for 91 transferred football players, which was more than any other WPIAL member school in that span, according to the Post-Gazette’s Bill Moushey. Greensburg Central Catholic came in second with 81. Meanwhile, over the three years since, quite a few football-related transfer cases have been reviewed by the WPIAL and PIAA involving those and other WPIAL schools.

Transfers have not necessarily helped those aforementioned schools dominate in football. Although both have had their moments of gridiron glory, the bottom line is, they haven’t won district and/or state championships year after year as a result of these roster additions. Schools like Rochester, Thomas Jefferson, Aliquippa, and Woodland Hills that have dominated WPIAL football over the past decade have done so largely with good home-grown talent and even better coaching.

If a student-athlete switches schools because he or she thinks it puts him or her in a better position to get the instruction and attention needed to be successful today, tomorrow, and beyond, I’m fine with that. If a football player wants to go where he feels he can make a more positive contribution to the greater good of another program that is better equipped to win, I’m fine with that too. As long as that player keeps his nose clean and keeps up his grades, I’m for lifting any restriction on where and when he dresses for a different team.

The PIAA is on the right track by signing off on this latest rule change. Now it must continue on that track, and the WPIAL must follow by doing what is best for innocent youths who participate in high school sports everywhere in the district:

Let them play.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)

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