When you're in sports media, you interact on a regular basis with the PIAA and its staff. We see the problems some folks complain about, and we have our own gripes with the agency at times. But the agency is hardly the evil empire of Star Wars fame, as some might suggest.
That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement, though. Looking into the agency's methodology for The Sentinel's series "Running the Numbers: How the PIAA Works," I saw problems that should be addressed in the name of fairness, which the agency is supposed to promote and protect. Here are a few:
Use a Bell Curve. It's true that, as the number of students at a school increases or decreases, the number involved in athletics is likely to do the same. And, even when more sports are added at larger schools, there's an upper limit - so why not slide the dividing line for the largest and smallest higher and lower?
In four-class sports, I'd make the largest 15 percent of schools a class, and the smallest 15 percent - and divide the rest down the middle. For three-class sports, go with 25 percent at the upper and lower ends of the scale, and the other half in the middle. If you have only two classes, I'd still slide the dividing line up, leaving 60 to 70 percent of schools in the smaller group.
Although some schools might complain of increased competition, the reality of it is that the smallest schools - Belleville Mennonite or Greenwood, for example - offer fewer sports, in effect helping to balance that scale.
Add classifications. The number of classes is supposed to be relevant to the number of schools offering that sport. Football - believe it or not, the smallest of the four-class sports in Pennsylvania - is sponsored by 588 schools. That's the same number as boys soccer (three classes), and fewer than boys track (605 teams in two classes).
Cross country has 569 schools in each gender, but just two classes. Wrestling has more sponsor schools than some sports with three classes, but it has only two. Girls track is bigger than boys (still two classes), and field hockey has more teams than girls soccer in the fall, but has one less classification (a third classification for girls was added this year).
Get rid of districts and go to a regional system, or at least redraw from scratch. Let schools be in different districts based on their classification (this is happening now with two District 6 schools, whose football teams are in District 7).
It's insane that the Northern Tier is in the same district as the Susquehanna Valley, for example - the districts that were drawn almost 100 years ago simply aren't relevant anymore.
Worse yet, two districts - District 3 and District 7 (WPIAL) pretty much control the state's athletics. They are entitled to proportionate representation on the PIAA board, and because of their size, they end up dominating the agency. There's no good reason for one PIAA district to have as many schools as District 7, and even less so for one to stretch from Perry County to Berks County.
Set minimum standards for state tournaments. In other words, do what is necessary to get rid of open tournaments, which allow undeserving teams to enter the playoffs just to get the experience, or an extra game.
The playoffs are supposed to be for championship-caliber teams. It doesn't have to be a ".500 rule" - devise a standard point system and limit the postseason to the top 30 or 40 percent of schools.
Use the same system to seed the state event, so the best two teams aren't knocking heads in the second round.
And bring back the east-versus-west format, even if the line has to move a bit to one side. Fans like it. Athletes like it. And I'm sure transportation directors like it.
Look again at soccer as a spring sport. I realize in the eyes of every baseball and softball coach in the state this is blasphemy. But who decided it would be a good idea to play soccer in November?
District 3, seemingly in deference to the power of field hockey in the midstate, made it a spring sport for girls. That's supposed to change in two years, but I'm not so sure that will happen - fully a third of the girls soccer played in the state still starts in March.
I can think of a few football coaches who would like to see the boys game move across the calendar, too. But that's their battle to fight.
Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at email@example.com.