Judge grants Jonna Burke preliminary injunction letting basketball coach avoid PIAA suspension

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Wednesday, November 8, 2023 | 4:48 PM


A federal judge has granted Jonna Burke’s request for a preliminary injunction, a legal victory that lets the Shady Side Academy girls basketball coach avoid a PIAA suspension for now.

Burke was serving a one-year ban for an alleged recruiting violation before U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy ruled in her favor Wednesday.

“I can breathe again,” Burke said. “A tremendous weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I don’t think I can adequately express how difficult this has been for me and my family. It sent me into a really dark place. I have been really upset and depressed because I never thought I did anything wrong.”

The WPIAL suspended Burke in July and the PIAA upheld that decision on appeal in August. In response, Burke and Shady Side Academy filed a joint federal lawsuit in September.

The preliminary injunction was granted after a hearing Wednesday, where Eddy restored to Burke her “full coaching status, rights and abilities.” Burke’s lawsuit ultimately was seeking a permanent injunction.

PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi declined comment on active litigation.

Burke is one of the most successful active coaches in the WPIAL with more than 500 career victories in 28 seasons. She said she’ll resume coaching her players at an open gym Thursday.

Shady Side Academy went 25-4 last winter in Burke’s second season with the Bulldogs and reached the state quarterfinals.

In a statement, Shady Side Academy said: “We are eager to move forward and enthusiastically anticipate Coach Burke’s immediate return to the basketball court and her team.”

The school also reiterated its stance that Burke did not break PIAA rules, and that the WPIAL violated her due process rights in its hearing process.

“From the outset, Shady Side Academy believed that Coach Burke’s actions were appropriate and consistent with the WPIAL and PIAA’s Rules and Regulations,” according to the school’s statement. “Shady Side Academy went to court because it believed that neither Shady Side Academy, nor Coach Burke, were treated fairly or in accordance with these organizations’ Rules and Regulations.”

The WPIAL had suspended Burke for sending a direct message on Twitter to the parents of a junior high girls basketball player at South Fayette. The girl’s parents had each followed Burke on the social media platform, now called X, and she sent them a private message offering to tell them more about Shady Side.

“I am really impressed with (your daughter),” Burke wrote to them, according to hearing testimony. “I’ve seen the highlights she posted and love her athleticism! If you have any interest in Shady Side Academy I’d love to have the opportunity to talk to (you) guys about it.”

The parents did not respond, and Burke said she had no further contact with them or the girl, but the WPIAL board voted 12-0 to suspend Burke for a recruiting violation.

Burke and Shady Side Academy had argued that because the girl’s parents each chose to follow Burke’s social media account, the parents initiated the inquiry, and therefore Burke was permitted to send them a message in response.

The lawsuit also was critical of the WPIAL hearing process, saying Burke was forced to defend herself against “unspecified allegations,” since the WPIAL did not provide Burke or the school a written copy of the complaint prior to the hearing date.

In addition, the lawsuit said PIAA guidelines for hearings were not followed when the WPIAL made Shady Side Academy testify first, without a case being presented by the accusing school, South Fayette.

A former college basketball player at Pitt, Burke previously coached at Butler and Bethel Park, her alma mater, before being hired as a coach and physical education teacher at Shady Side in 2021.

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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