WPIAL is looking for PIAA to explain its transfer rule

| Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, 11:59 p.m.

Disenchanted by and disgusted with the frequency with which the PIAA overturns its athletic eligibility decisions in transfer cases, the WPIAL is asking for an explanation.

PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi and PIAA Board of Directors president James Zack, as well as the legal counsel for the state's governing body for high school athletics, will address the issue Monday afternoon before the WPIAL Board of Control at the District 7 office in Green Tree.

The WPIAL already has had six cases this school year in which it ruled athletes ineligible for transferring with athletic intent overturned by the PIAA.

“One of the concerns is, are we the only one who requests that many and, if so, why is that?” WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley said. “That's one question, if I'm Bob Lombardi, I'm asking. If he doesn't, we will.”

Reversal of rulings

According to statistics provided by the WPIAL, 94 percent of transfers over the past five years have been approved on paperwork, meaning the student-athlete has switched schools with sign-offs from principals from both schools.

If one school contests that the transfer is for “athletic intent” — to gain additional playing time; to play for a particular school, coach or team; or to avoid playing for a particular school, coach or team; and to gain increased media or college exposure, as defined in the PIAA bylaws — the WPIAL requests both schools to attend a hearing.

Of the 108 cases that had hearings before the WPIAL Board of Control since 2007, 60 percent were ruled ineligible. All but a handful of those decisions have been reversed by the PIAA Board of Directors.

That discrepancy has infuriated the WPIAL, which contends it is merely enforcing Article VI, Section 4 of the PIAA bylaws, which deals with transfers, residence and recruiting.

“Is there a gray area that we're missing?” said WPIAL president Jack Fullen, the athletic director at Blackhawk. “They err on the side of caution rather than strictly the black and white of the bylaws. I'm not saying that's wrong, but we go by what's written there in black and white.”

Where the WPIAL follows the letter of the bylaw, other districts might be following the spirit of the transfer rule.

“All we're trying to do is enforce what the bylaws are,” O'Malley said. “There is an appearance that arbitrarily you enforce the rule.”

That could explain the discrepancy in the number of cases ruled ineligible by the WPIAL compared to the state's 11 other districts.

“I can't say it's a huge issue,” said Kennett principal Michael Barber, chairman of District 1, which comprises the suburban Philadelphia counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery. “When certain concerns are brought forth, we have hearings, and we hear those cases. But I wouldn't say by any stretch we struggle with it.”

Lawyering up

Upper St. Clair-based attorney Craig Lee has represented what O'Malley calls an “inordinate amount” of the student-athletes ruled ineligible by the WPIAL.

Lee said he believes there is a bias on the WPIAL board, based on prior knowledge of cases and because some of the board members represent schools that compete against his clients.

“I do believe that the WPIAL looks for a reason to rule you ineligible when you go into a hearing,” Lee said. “Whether it's correct or not, the feeling by most of my clients after a hearing is that they were guilty until proven innocent.”

Lee said there is an appearance on the WPIAL board of an “old-boy network, based on the history between the schools” and that hearings can be intimidating because of the aggressive manner in which they are conducted.

“I don't think it's an easy job, and I will empathize with the WPIAL that it's not easy,” Lee said, “but I don't think they have anybody to blame but themselves because of their inconsistencies in the process. I don't believe the PIAA is inconsistent. I believe the WPIAL is.

“My clients are sometimes very, very shocked at the tone of those hearings, (feeling) that you're really guilty until proven innocent. I think the PIAA is aware that the hearings at the WPIAL can be pretty rough, and I don't think they like that.”

Kevin Gorman and Chris Harlan are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Gorman can be reached at kgorman@tribweb.com or 412-320-7812. Harlan can be reached at charlan@tribweb.com or 412-380-5666.

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