Sanctioning Snarls at Penn Relays

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.8, September 2005,

One of the beauties of the Penn Relays, held at Philadelphia’s vast and venerable Franklin Field and drawing competitors from the high school through Olympic-development ranks, is that it offers a chance for student-athletes to compare themselves against peers from across the nation. But the near-national meet stature of the Relays also provides one of its biggest challenges: running an event where athletes subject to different states’ sanctioning rules must compete together.

The issue came to a head in the weeks leading up to this year’s Relays in April, when the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced it wouldn’t allow its member schools to take part without formal assurances that other states’ scholastic-division athletes attend schools belonging to their respective state high school sanctioning bodies. The NYSPHSAA had recently revised its sanctioning process, which is designed to ensure that athletes compete against true peers in terms of age and eligibility in legitimate events, and it used membership in a state association as such assurance.

Trouble was, certain Pennsylvania high schools, including those in a Philadelphia-area Catholic league, aren’t in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, and PIAA officials wouldn’t check off a section of the sanctioning form saying that certain nonmember schools were approved. “As a state association, we did not want to stick our neck out and say, ‘Yes, we approve these schools,’ because we really don’t have any jurisdiction over them,” explains Melissa Mertz, PIAA Assistant Executive Director.

Penn Relays organizers juggled schedules to avoid pitting NYSPHSAA competitors against athletes whose schools weren’t vouched for by the PIAA. Eventually, the PIAA had nonmember Penn Relays applicants sign a statement promising that they abide by PIAA eligibility rules. “By signing the statement, the principal of that school was saying they adhere to all the rules and regulations, just as the member schools do,” Mertz says.

The deal worked for the New Yorkers. “Our students were able to participate,” says Nina Van Erk, NYSPHSAA Executive Director. “There was cooperation with the management of the Penn Relays, and we have spoken with our counterparts at the PIAA as well.”

While it’s straightened out for now, Penn Relays Carnival Director Dave Johnson fears the issue could resurface and involve other state associations. In Maryland, for example, private and parochial schools aren’t eligible to join the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association even though many regularly compete against MPSSAA members. In other states, private schools aren’t technically members but are “affiliated” or have some other relationship that might not meet another state’s criteria. And in a much-publicized case, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Activities Association required its member schools to sign waivers before allowing them to participate in the Penn Relays—run by the University of Pennsylvania, in conflict with the MIAA’s rule that secondary-school people be in charge of every event.

Johnson says he’s spoken with the NFHS seeking uniformity among sanctioning procedures. But there’s only so much the Federation can do, says Assistant Executive Director Elliott Hopkins.

“It’s a voluntary membership, so our members don’t have to abide by our rules,” says Hopkins. “We do all we can to facilitate uniformity and smooth out rough edges, but we don’t have the authority to tell a state to relax its rules or be more inclusive or less restrictive.”

As for any coaches who might like to send athletes to the 2006 Penn Relays, scheduled for April 27-29, Johnson advises having athletic directors or principals get questions sorted out with their state associations early, whether they are at a member school or not. “It’s mostly a matter of communication,” he says. “Better to find out in advance than to get someplace and find out, ‘Whoa, we’re not allowed to participate.’”