PIAA upholds 1-year suspension for Shady Side Academy girls basketball coach Jonna Burke

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Tuesday, August 22, 2023 | 4:10 PM


The PIAA sided with the WPIAL on Tuesday and upheld the one-year suspension of Shady Side Academy girls basketball coach Jonna Burke.

The decision came after a 90-minute appeal hearing in which Burke’s attorney argued that the longtime coach did not violate PIAA recruiting rules when she sent a direct message on Twitter to the parents of an athlete at another school.

The five-person PIAA appeal panel disagreed and voted unanimously to sustain the WPIAL decision, PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said.

Burke’s attorney, Kendra Smith, 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.

“That was an interesting argument,” Lombardi said. “The board addressed it (in deliberations). They feel there’s a spirit and intent to every rule that we have. I’m not sure they agree with the interpretation of a ‘follower’ being an inquiry.”

The WPIAL board also disagreed with that rule interpretation when it heard the case July 20. The WPIAL voted 12-0 to suspend Burke for one year.

South Fayette’s administration brought the initial complaint to the WPIAL.

“The WPIAL hearing board determined Coach Burke’s Twitter message … was conducted to influence their daughter to enroll in Shady Side Academy,” WPIAL secretary Tom Evans said in testimony Tuesday. “The WPIAL panel determined that merely following Coach Burke on Twitter did not constitute a student- or family-initiated inquiry.”

According to earlier testimony, Burke’s direct message to the parents said: “I am really impressed with (your daughter). 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.”

Burke previously said her direct message went unanswered and she never had any further contact with the parents or daughter. Her attorney said Shady Side Academy investigated her actions and found they violated school policy, but believed no PIAA rules were broken.

“To constitute recruiting, a coach must seek out an athlete,” Smith said in Tuesday’s hearing. “That is the plain language of the recruiting rules. None of that happened here. What happened was, the (parents) reached out and initiated inquiry and contact with Coach Burke.”

Citing PIAA rules, Smith later added: “If a parent or student initiates the contact with a coach, a coach is then free to discuss the school and the athletic program with those parents.”

Smith said the rules don’t define what is considered an “initiating inquiry,” and argued that choosing to follow Burke on Twitter should qualify in this case.

District 10 chairman Pete Iacino proposed a hypothetical situation in which an athlete’s parent chose to follow the coach of every other team in a league.

“Does that allow, under PIAA rules, for each of those schools to contact me in reference to my son going to any one of those schools?” Iacino asked.

Yes, Smith said, and argued that a social media follow should be considered an inquiry, since it’s a request to see the content posted online by coaches.

“Those schools would be well within their rights to respond just like Coach Burke did,” Smith said. “And say, ‘Hey, if you have any interest in whichever school your son was interested in, please let me know.’”

The PIAA panel ultimately disagreed after extended deliberations.

With more than 500 career wins in 28 seasons, Burke is one of the most successful active girls basketball coaches in the WPIAL.

Shady Side Academy went 25-4 last winter in Burke’s second season with the Bulldogs and reached the state quarterfinals in Class 3A. 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.

In Tuesday’s appeal hearing, Burke’s attorney attacked the WPIAL hearing process itself, saying the league violated due process rights four times, most notably by not having the complainant, South Fayette, present evidence at the hearing. Smith also accused board members of having a conflict of interest because of previous public statements in support of splitting public and private schools into separate leagues.

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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