The passionate, often rugged and sometimes bruising competitiveness of North Carolina high school sports is embodied in the debate over House Bill 91 in the General Assembly.
If Republican-sponsored HB91 clears the legislature, the N.C. High School Athletic Association would have to agree to serve as a vendor of the State Board of Education rather than its current oversight role — if it is allowed to continue to exist.
The next step is the Senate Rules and Operations committee, which is scheduled to meet at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
If the bill is eventually signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper, much of the legislation is slated to go into effect Oct. 15.
Cooper, a Democrat, has not taken a public position on HB91, but acknowledged it was likely the Senate could pass the bill.
“Interestingly enough, (bill) supporters want to take it out of the private sector and put it into government,” Cooper said on July 22. “We will examine the bill to see if it is really needed. I will be glad to talk to legislators about it.”
During Thursday’s nearly hourlong discussion over the latest edition of the bill in the Senate Education/Higher Education committee, it became increasingly clear how personal and political the process has become.
On one side, you have the leadership of a 108-year-old successful and peer-respected NCHSAA facing calls for its dissolution and/or potentially existing as an administrator with drastically reduced authority over middle and high school athletics.
On the other side, you have several Republican senators — most notably bill sponsors Tom McInnis from Anson County, Todd Johnson from Union County and Vickie Sawyer from Iredell County — who are willing to take a “throw the baby out with the bath water” approach in their full-throated quest “to fix the lack of transparency and accountability” within the NCHSAA.
Caught in the middle are not only the boards of the NCHSAA and State Board of Education (SBE), but also the school administrators, athletic directors, coaches and more than 200,000 athletes of the 427 member schools.
Both sides claim they have heard from those groups, which are expressing concerning or support about how the NCHSAA operates. Both sides acknowledge there is room for improvement through reform initiatives.
Alan Duncan, vice chairman of the SBE and the Triad’s board representative, told the committee he views HB91 as a way to “refresh the NCHSAA.”
He said the bill would allow the SBE to take an oversight role over high school athletics through a memorandum of understanding with the NCHSAA involving modification and revisions benefitting all parties.
“That is what I think the intent is here, and certainly is the intent of the SBE with the legislature,” Duncan said.
Meanwhile, NCHSAA assistant commissioner James Alverson used much of his brief public comment time to read a letter from Bobby Wilkins, president of the NCHSAA board.
Wilkins wrote he was “voicing our combined and strong opposition” to HB91, including the latest version. He said the NCHSAA board has agreed to make “tangible steps toward making improvements we feel are beneficial to our member schools and the student athletes we serve.”
Wilkins said HB91 does not reflect the board’s recommendations to the bill sponsors or SBE. He asked “why the continued push to cripple” the NCHSAA.
Alverson said in his own comments that “we’re willing to work with you.”
“But, it’s really hard to work with people that are holding a gun to your head for something that’s going to damage what you do for student athletes.”
“That’s difficult. It’s hard to negotiate with people who are saying ‘take it or leave it.’ That’s not negotiations.”
The controversial bill was changed substantially through an amendment disclosed publicly for the first time Thursday.
The previous version of HB91 contained language that would replace the NCHSAA with a new organization, the N.C. 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. The latest version of HB91 strips out the language for the new organization.
Sawyer opened her presentation by claiming talks with several Democratic senators yielded support for the latest version of HB91.
However, some of those Democratic senators said after reviewing the latest version that they questioned whether the bill sponsors had heard them at all.
Sawyer said she has been asked by fellow senators “why are you putting politics into athletics?’”
“The bill before you was crafted with the student-athlete and our schools in mind. It simply sets a standard for the operations of a vendor that works for the state ... a regulatory framework with reporting requirements.
“One concern was ‘why abolish the (NCHSAA); you can just fix the issue, fix the lack of transparency and accountability,” Sawyer said. “With this bill, we seek to reform, not destroy” the NCHSAA.
NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker told the committee that “there are some changes that need to be made, and our board started that process in late April. We are willing to work together, not separately, with the SBE.”
Sawyer acknowledged that bill sponsors have spoken in the past two months with the SBE and some members of the NCHSAA’s board — but not with NCHSAA staff, including Tucker.
When questioned about that negotiating strategy, Sawyer said “I, respectfully, don’t know that it’s really important to get input from the contractor on what the contract should be.”
Johnson said speaking with some NCHSAA board members in multiple conversations was the proper approach since the board is the decision-making body for the NCHSAA.
In a tense exchange, Tucker said she was speaking on behalf of the board in declaring its opposition to HB91. Johnson said he doubted that Tucker has that authority even though it is included in the NCHAA’s by-laws, as was pointed out by Sen. Gladys Robinson, D-Guilford.
Sen. Michael Lazzara, R-Onslow, claimed the latest edition of HB91 “is exactly what the athletic directors and many principals I’ve met with are looking for.”
“This legislation creates an atmosphere where an organization can focus on scheduling and organizing the games and the administration ... and take the politics out.”
Lazzara said his support for HB91 comes from constituent feedback.
“There’s something fundamentally wrong when coaches, parents and students are afraid to speak up because they are afraid of retribution. This has been a common theme across the state,” Lazzara said.
“If (the NCHSAA) had oversight, we wouldn’t be here today.
“I think (HB91) is good for the state. I think it’s good for the parents. I think it’s good for the schools. And it leaves an opportunity for the same organization to keep providing what they are doing now in a different context.”
The bill sponsors cited conversations — some dating back to 2019 — from school administrators and athletic officials, along with parents and students, that inspired pursuing each version of HB91.
McInnis has made it clear with several media outlets, foremost with Raleigh TV station WRAL affiliate HighschoolOT.com, that his grievance with the NCHSAA involves the 2019 Anson County High School football team.
Sawyer acknowledged in a statement supplied by the office of Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, that the bill sponsors “started our investigation after the Anson High School football team was barred from participating in the state playoffs.”
Anson was prohibited from participating in the state playoffs after several players were ejected for fighting or leaving the bench and running onto the field during an August non-conference game against Richmond County High School.
NCHSAA rules bar teams from the playoffs if three or more players are ejected in the course of a season.
Both McInnis and Tucker acknowledge discussing McInnis’ advocacy on behalf of the Anson team.
McInnis told HighSchoolOT.com that after reviewing the game video, he thought the ejections were “subjective.”
“I think they (NCHSAA) did it just because they could. Anson County is a small, rural school district ... those kids don’t have a voice, but their senator has a voice, and this senator is not going to just stand idly by.”
Tucker told HighSchoolOT.com that McInnis reached out to the NCHSAA the week before the 2019 playoff brackets were seeded, despite the school not filing an appeal.
On Thursday, Sawyer became visibly emotional when saying that, “I’m standing here because I’ve talked to student-athletes who were crying because they couldn’t make it to the football game, they don’t understand why the NCHSAA made the choice they did ... because they were denied a fair appeals process.”
Support for HB91?
Supporters for reforming, but not dissolving, the NCHSAA question how much statewide backing there is for HB91.
They have claimed bill sponsors are overstating, if not exaggerating, the number of constituents they have heard from, as well as how many NCHSAA board members are actively involved in negotiating the language in HB91.
None of the public speakers at the committee meeting stated support for HB91.
HighSchoolOT.com reported the NCHSAA has received statements of support, foremost from the National Federation of State High School Associations, but also the N.C. Coaches Association, the N.C. Athletic Directors Association, the N.C. Football Coaches Association, the N.C. Wrestling Coaches Association and the N.C. Soccer Coaches Association.
The National Federation of State High School Associations praised the NCHSAA for operating successfully “in a fair and equitable manner — free from politically motivated initiatives — for the past century. The NCHSAA has established programs to ensure that the privilege of competing in high school sports is available to everyone in their member schools.”
Colin Fegeley, athletics director at Green Level High School in Cary, told committee members he was “hard pressed to find many aspects of the bill that truly puts student athletes first.”
The latest version of HB91 would take the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to high school academics and athletics into consideration in several potentially controversial ways.
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.”
Fegeley and Greg Grantham, athletic director for Onslow County Schools, cited the possibility of 19- and 20-year-olds playing against 14-year-olds, along with opening the door for more recruitment of athletes by magnet and charter schools, and allowing students to play even with failing grades.
The bill also would require many of those magnet, charter and Catholic schools to move from the 1-A to 2-A classification, including Bishop McGuinness, in order to remain NCHSAA members.
“Although we’ve had our disagreements, we’re a big family,” Fegeley said. “(The NCHSAA) puts student-athletes first.”
Deran Coe, athletics director for Wake County Schools, asked the committee to hit pause on HB91 “in order to work toward an agreeable MOU, rather than continue down the path of unnecessary legislation.”
“While I do not support the bill, there are parts that have merit. There is a need for more clarity about the finances of the NCHSAA. The NCHSAA already has taken steps to provide more financial transparency in a more acceptable manner.”
Coe cited that schools volunteer to be members of the NCHSAA and have the opportunity to have input into its by-laws.
“There are pieces of the legislation that I feel strongly would harm the quality of the interscholastic athletic competition in North Carolina, and directly and indirectly have an impact on our student athletes,” Coe said.
Coe said that mandating just four classifications for high school sports based on average daily membership is not wise given the student population gaps between the smallest and largest schools in each classification.
Sawyer claimed the NCHSAA supporters she heard from “are either current board members, those who have a financial relationship with the board and they have been their loudest supporters.
“I am here for the students, not the bureaucrats,” she said.
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, said he feels it is a mistake and a missed opportunity for the bill sponsors to exclude Tucker and NCHSAA from any reform discussions.
Chaudhuri also said he has been hearing from coaches, athletic directors, parents and students “who have a differing opinion” from what the bill sponsors are presenting.
“It will help to have all the entities in the same room because there is a real opportunity to address the reform issues.
“My concern is that the unintentional consequence of the bill is that it leads to the demise of the NCHSAA.”