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North Carolina High School Sports Governing Deal Reached; Watauga and Avery County School Officials Offer Opinions on the Issue

By Tim Gardner

Legislation that would produce new controls upon the nonprofit body governing North Carolina high school sports has been agreed to in principle, state officials have said. However, some uncertainty remains, as all the details haven’t been ironed out.

North Carolina House and Senate GOP members who have scrutinized the North Carolina High School Athletic Association want changes made to address what they deem is the group’s oversized control over member schools, eligibility decisions and monetary penalties. They have also highlighted the flush coffers of the association, which was founded in 1913.

The GOP lawmakers from both chambers said both Republican and Democrat legislators met with representatives of Democratic Governor Roy Cooper, the State Board of Education and NCHSAA officials “to discuss the best pathway forward” on legislation.

“We’re happy to report that after months of examining how best to support our student athletes and high school athletics we’ve come to an agreement,” the Republicans’ statement read. “We believe this agreement will put the needs of our student athletes first, while allowing for a better, more transparent governing structure.”

Senators who initially proposed this past summer to replace the NCHSAA with a new athletics organization passed a substitute this month that would instead tell the association and the State Board of Education to sign a formal memo concerning how the association would carry out board policy on interscholastic sports. But association leaders chafed under all the financial and administrative directives at the bill, leading to opposition by Senate Democrats.

While the agreement will still require a memorandum of understanding between the board and the NCHSAA, the anticipated bill will be less prescriptive about what it must contain, according to Senator Vickie Sawyer, an Iredell County Republican helping lead the Senate’s proposals.

It would have to pass both chambers before being signed onto by Governor Cooper.

The NCHSAA’s top leadership downplayed the announcement. For now, the association and its governing board remain opposed to the bill, association Commissioner Que Tucker said.

“We know there are still many hurdles to clear before we can reach an agreement with the State Board of Education,” Tucker said in a statement. “Once we can turn our attention to formally working with the (education board) without legislative involvement, we hope to continue the long-standing cooperation between the association and (board) to lead high school athletics.”

But Governor Cooper, who would be asked to sign any bill into law, seemed on board with the measure. The governor selects most voting members of the State Board of Education.

It’s likely the agreement will require the rules on eligibility, school punishments and appeals to be worked out in public though the State Board of Education’s administrative process. A separate board would handle player and team appeals.

Sawyer said it “is absolutely our intent” to require the NCHSAA to be subject to state open meeting and public records laws.” However, she added that she does not know if that will specifically be spelled out in the bill.

Watauga and Avery County School Superintendents and Watauga County High School Principal Dr. Chris Blanton, who currently serves on the NCHSAA Board of Directors, offered High Country Press quotes concerning their feelings about the new prep governing deal reached.

Watauga County Superintendent Dr. Scott Elliott said: “I have been around high school athletics long enough to realize that at some point we are all going to have a disagreement with the North Carolina High School Athletic Association about how sports are administered. Issues such as classifications, conference alignments, and playoff decisions are never going to satisfy everyone. Then add in the very difficult decisions the Association has to adjudicate, such as suspensions due to behaviors or disqualifications due to ineligible athletes. That has always been the case and as long as we have competitive events where rules have to be set and enforced, it will continue to be that way regardless of who is in charge of athletics in our state.  

“If elected officials want to take over the oversight of this very large and complex process of administering all high school sports, I would just caution them to make sure they know what they are getting into first. I am sure there are things that can be improved or issues that need to be addressed with the current organization, so let’s fix those and move on without making it political.”

Dr. Blanton said he backs the NCSAA concerning the governing issue. He remarked: “I’ve had the privilege of seeing the NCHSAA from a variety of different perspectives. I benefited from the work of the association as a student-athlete, a coach, and a principal. The association does a great job under difficult circumstances. The staff faces scenarios on a daily basis where decisions have to be made that impact students and their families. There are times these decisions are unpopular, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. I fully support the NCHSAA and based on the feedback I’ve received. I believe an overwhelming majority of the schools served by the association feel the same.  

Avery County Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman gave the following comments about the governing deal between the parties: “I’m in agreement that adequate oversight of any agency or organization that receives funding from public schools is essential.  Cooperation between school districts, elected officials and the NCHSAA may prove more productive rather than a complete dismantling of our high school athletics association. I’m also in agreement with the current structure of equal representation across each region when decisions must be made about high school athletics.”

The North Carolina State Senate originally approved legislation that would strip the current governing body of public school prep sports in the state–the North Carolina High School Athletic Association of most of its oversight authority.

The Senate voted 28-14 on a third reading September 8 to approve the latest version of controversial House Bill 91 with the continuing support of one Senate Democrat, Kirk DeViere of Cumberland County.

On September 1, HB91 passed 32-14 on second reading with five Democratic senators voting yes, including Michael Garrett of Guilford County.

Garrett had an approved absence on September 8 on September 1, while three Democrats — Sarah Crawford of Wake County, Joyce Waddell of Mecklenburg County and Mike Woodard of Durham County — switched from a yes on September 1 to a no.

Given that Republicans have a 28-22 majority in the State Senate, there likely would have been enough support to override a potential veto by North Carolina Democrat Governor Roy Cooper.

HB91 was returned to the State House for concurrence on the changes made by Senate bill sponsors that began on July 21.

Bill co-sponsor Senator Tom McInnis, R-Anson County, gave the latest in a series of speeches in support for HB91 Wednesday, citing an example of the 2019 Anson County High School football team.

Anson’s football team was prohibited from participating in the 2019 state playoffs after several players were ejected for fighting or leaving the bench and running onto the field during a game against Richmond County High School.

NCHSAA rules bar teams from the playoffs if three or more players are ejected during the course of a season.

Sawyer and McInnis have said because of current NCHSAA guideline that the ejected players were denied due process from a potential appeal process.

Sawyer said athletic officials of various schools governed by the NCHSAA and parents of student-athletes playing for those schools have been reluctant to speak out against the NCHSAA because of concerns of potential retribution.

The latest version of HB91 was amended to allow a student or a parent “to appeal a penalty resulting from the application of any rule that restricts an individual student from participating in a season, game or series of games.”

The student or parent is to be provided with “a written copy of the rule that is the basis for the penalty.”

The bill also was amended to give the State Board of Public Instruction the ability to “adopt rules related to enrollment and transfer of students between public school units.”

Another change to the bill is that students would not be allowed to participate in a sport if they enrolled based “solely for athletic participation purposes.”

Additionally, the NCHSAA, or another vendor contracted by the SBE, would not be allowed to “prohibit or restrict a participating school from scheduling a nonconference game during the regular season, or take any portion of ticket sales from those games.”

Several state lawmakers have been outspoken in blaming the NCHSAA for the necessity of the bill.

Sawyer claims the NCHSAA has been doing a disservice to prep athletic programs statewide with its oversight policies, including the way it handles money and the way it deals with violations of rules and by-laws without what she considers due process.

That’s even though membership in the association is voluntary for school athletic programs, and its 427 members vote on those policies and by-laws.

An earlier version of HB91 contained language that would replace the NCHSAA with a new organization, the North Carolina Interscholastic Athletic Commission, also overseen by the SBE.

The commission would have 17 members, nine appointed by the governor and four each from the Senate leader and House speaker. 

For example, for the 2021-22 school year, “students would not be required to meet academic requirements for participation, and would be eligible for hardship waivers for age eligibility requirements.”

Some have cited the possibility of 19 and 20-year-olds playing against 14-year-olds, opening the door for more recruitment of athletes by magnet and charter schools, and allowing students to play even with failing grades.

Bill sponsors amended the bill to remove the requirement that charter schools would have to play up one level in classification. There would be a separate oversight subgroup that would determine athletic eligibility at those schools.

Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think-tank John Locke Foundation, said Governor Cooper’s position remains uncertain given “he has not said much, if anything, about oversight of high school sports.”