Aliquippa sues PIAA to prevent football team’s promotion to Class 5A

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Thursday, March 28, 2024 | 1:57 PM


The school with the most wins in WPIAL football history is hoping its next big victory comes in a courtroom.

Aliquippa has filed a lawsuit seeking to block the PIAA from moving its football team to a higher classification where opponents would have much larger enrollments. The lawsuit, which is the latest step in a contentious fight over the PIAA competitive-balance rule, was filed Thursday in Beaver County Common Pleas Court by attorney Tina Miller, who represents the school.

“We tried to go through all of the proper channels, but we didn’t feel that our complaint was heard,” Aliquippa superintendent Phillip Woods said. “We didn’t feel that it was properly vetted, so we had no choice but to take legal action.”

Aliquippa’s lawsuit asks to keep the PIAA from moving the team from Class 4A to 5A for the 2024 and ‘25 seasons, but also challenges the legality of the competitive-balance rule itself. The suit argues that the PIAA’s decision to establish three-or-more transfers as the threshold for promotion is “arbitrary and capricious.”

“The transfer number is random,” Miller said in the lawsuit. “There is no data, no study and no research that provides any scientific or rational basis for the number three.”

PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi declined comment on active litigation. The PIAA board in January heard Aliquippa’s appeal and denied the school’s request to remain in 4A.

The lawsuit alleges that the “PIAA is knowingly and intentionally hostile toward Aliquippa” in its application of the competitive-balance rule. Woods noted that after Aliquippa won its appeal in 2022, in part by arguing health and safety concerns, the PIAA eliminated those as grounds for appeal.

The PIAA also made clear in updated language that all transfers on the roster will be counted, not just those who contributed on the field. Aliquippa has argued that transfers who didn’t contribute shouldn’t be counted in a competitive-balance rule.

“When you look at all of the changes they made — and you look at the correlation between our arguments and their changes — you can’t deny where these changes are coming from,” Woods said.

Aliquippa’s lawsuit says the school will “suffer irreparable harm, including … financial and logistical costs and the exposure of its student-athletes to unnecessary health and safety risks,” unless the court intervenes.

Under the PIAA competitive-balance rule, football teams that have success in the state playoffs and add three or more transfers in a two-year span are forced to a higher classification. Aliquippa met both criteria, according to the PIAA.

The Quips won the PIAA Class 4A title last season and were the state runners-up in 2022. The PIAA also counted five transfers, although Aliquippa has said most contributed little.

The PIAA used the competitive-balance rule to promote the Quips from Class 3A to 4A in 2020, and now to 5A. What Aliquippa advocates see as most unfair is that the football team was voluntarily playing up from Class A to 3A before the rule was enacted. Aliquippa’s current enrollment qualifies for 2A.

The lawsuit insists that teams voluntarily playing up should be promoted from their true enrollment level, not from where a team was voluntarily playing. The PIAA has rejected that idea and included language in the rule saying so.

Woods, football coach Mike Warfield and other critics of the rule have argued that forcing the team to play against significantly larger opponents is unfair and a safety hazard.

“Acting with zero oversight and no accountability, (the PIAA) changes the course of teams, seasons and school districts – not to mention the student athletes and their families – on the basis of unreasonable and arbitrary guesswork, and sometimes hostility,” the lawsuit said.

Aliquippa isn’t the first school district to test the PIAA competitive-balance rule in court.

Dunmore, a public school in Lackawanna County, unsuccessfully challenged a competitive-balance move for its girls basketball team in a 2019 lawsuit that ended in federal appeals court. That case reportedly involved two transfers who played only on the junior varsity team, and the transfer threshold for basketball is one or more.

The PIAA competitive-balance rule has undergone a number of changes since its implementation in 2018 and could have another major overhaul in the near future. The PIAA board voted last week to undertake a thorough review of the rule, but any changes likely wouldn’t impact classifications until 2026.

“The board said they were going to establish a subcommittee of the board and the executive staff to review the competition formula from soup to nuts,” Lombardi said Saturday at the state basketball finals in Hershey. “They’ll evaluate all of it … and make a report back to the board in May.”

He said the PIAA might again consider eliminating transfers entirely from the rule, an option that passed the PIAA board twice in 2022 before being voted down on a third reading.

“The initiative (to form a subcommittee) was some of the criticisms people were putting out — that some teams are not going up and they may be circumventing the intent of (the rule),” Lombardi said. “The board said, ‘We’re not deaf to these comments.’ We want to be responsive to the membership and the membership said, ‘Hey, what’s the harm in reviewing?’ So we’re going to.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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