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North Carolina Senators Aim To Control NCHSAA, Not Remove It

 Goal-line markers on a high school football field in Sampson County, North Carolina.
Goal-line markers on a high school football field in Sampson County, North Carolina.

Senate Republicans shelved a proposal Thursday to end the North Carolina High School Athletic Association's oversight of interscholastic sports, replacing it with constraints upon the group's finances and transparency in decision-making activities.

A bill approved last month by the Senate education committee would have created a new state athletic commission, its members chosen by the governor and legislative leaders, to take over the association's work.

The measure was retooled, however, after complaints from Democrats and association allies that it would inject partisanship into high school sports and effectively end the NCHSAA, which began in 1913. The nonprofit group, connected to the University of North Carolina until becoming independent in 2010, has been subject to criticisms in recent years from lawmakers and constituents about its authority and sizeable assets.

The amended proposal, which is still opposed by top association leaders, would essentially direct the State Board of Education to enter a formal, written agreement with the association by Oct. 15 on how it would administer athletics going forward.

“We heard you and (in) this bill, we seek to reform, not destroy,” Sen. Vickie Sawyer, an Iredell County Republican and bill author, told the education committee before it was approved on a voice vote. “It simply sets a standard for the operations of a vendor that works for the state ... this bill just sets up a regulatory framework with reporting requirements.”

But the measure demands several items in the “memorandum of understanding." Like a government agency, the association would be subject to state public records and open meeting laws. There would be limits on its share of state tournament revenues and on fees upon the 400-plus member schools.

Association game and penalty rules would be subject to public comment and could be blocked by the State Board of Education. Appeals would be handled by an independent commission appointed by the board, not the association. And the NCHSAA could not restrict the recording of state tournament games by parents of athletes or school employees — a complaint by families during the COVID-19 pandemic when they could not attend in person. Unlike the previous version, private schools could still participate in association athletics.

“This legislation creates an atmosphere where an organization can focus on scheduling and organizing the games and the administration,” said Sen. Michael Lazzara, an Onslow County Republican and committee member. “I think it's good for the state. I think it’s good for the parents. I think it’s good for the schools."

Association leaders, including Commissioner Que Tucker, said Thursday the bill is too prescriptive and does not acknowledge reforms that NCHSAA leaders started in the spring.

“We’ve always had an informal memorandum of understanding and we wish to continue that work,” Tucker told the committee. “But what we would like to be able to do is to continue that without coercion, without political influence.”

Colin Fegeley, athletic director at Green Level High School in Wake County, said he was "hard pressed to find many aspects of the bill that truly puts student athletes first.”

Senators exchanged verbal jabs over whether Tucker and other board leaders had provided input for the latest legislation. Senate Republicans did meet privately with Tucker and other NCHSAA leaders after the previous bill was unveiled and voted on the by education committee.

But negotiations over the latest version largely occurred with the State Board of Education, Sawyer said, because “I, respectfully, don’t know that it’s really important to get input from the contractor on what the contract should be.” Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Guilford County Democrat, said that was a bad decision that encourages partisanship. Still, most state board members are appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, suggested that legislators minimize the mandates and let the association and education board work out an agreement. Otherwise, he said, “the unintentional consequence of the bill could ultimately lead to the demise” of the association.

The bill now goes to another committee before it reaches the Senate floor. Formal House support is also needed before it goes to Gov. Cooper's desk.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

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