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Bill to change high school sports OK'd by North Carolina General Assembly
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Bill to change high school sports OK'd by North Carolina General Assembly

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The state legislature approved Wednesday a new version of a controversial bill that changes how high- and middle-schools sports are managed in North Carolina.

The Senate first passed House Bill 91 on a 41-7 vote, while the House followed with a 76-38 vote in favor.

A conference committee spent about seven weeks to reach a concurrence on HB91, including what role the N.C. High School Athletic Association or another nonprofit organization would have.

The bill allows the State Board of Education to enter into a potential four-year vendor contract with the NCHSAA, or another nonprofit organization.

The seventh and latest version of HB91 says that if the Board of Education does not enter into a memorandum of understanding with a group, it “shall assign the administration of high school interscholastic athletic activities to the Department of Public Instruction and establish fees sufficient to support the administration of the program.”

After months of often-heated exchanges between Republican bill sponsors and NCHSAA executives, the HB91 compromise was spurred by discussions held in September involving bill sponsors, Democratic legislators and officials from the NCHSAA, the Board of Education and representatives from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office.

Cooper has 10 days to sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

“The governor looks forward to reviewing the legislation,” Cooper press secretary Jordan Monaghan said Wednesday.

The bill could become effective when signed into law by Cooper, even though the fall sports season is nearly over and winter sports season is just underway.

Sen. Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell, and a co-primary bill sponsor, told legislators Wednesday it is likely the Board of Education “will move forward with a memorandum of understanding in March.”

Rep. Raymond Smith, D-Wayne, told legislators during the brief debate on the current bill that the legislation “is one of the most unnecessary bills that I have seen since I’ve been here.”

“This bill is attempting to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. Why are we interfering in high-school sports? It is the last truly pure amateur sports that we have in the state.”

The Board of Education could not be immediately reached Wednesday for comment about the bill’s passage.

NCHSAA response

Association officials said in September they were opposed to an earlier version of the bill that would strip the NCHSAA of much of its authority.

Following passage of HB91, NCHSAA board president Bobby Wilkins released a statement saying that its board of directors "does not oppose the passage of House Bill 91 as revised."

Wilkins cited the progress made from the September negotiations after calling earlier version of the bill a "detriment of our state’s student-athletes."

"Although we continued to believe that legislation was unnecessary, we advocated for changes to the legislation that would best serve the needs of student-athletes. As of today, House Bill 91 has been revised to reflect these changes," Wilkins said.

"The State Board of Education has assured the NCHSAA that it will work with the association to reach a memorandum of understanding with the NCHSAA.

"The NCHSAA remains committed to negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the State Board of Education that will support and promote the development of high school athletics in our state in a positive manner."

Changes

The negotiations reduced what was a 10-page bill to a five-page final version.

Sawyer said the negotiations represented an example “of nobody gets everything they want; this is exactly what we get.”

The previous version, which cleared the Senate by a 28-14 vote on Sept. 8, laid out specifics on what authorities the Board of Education would and would not allow for a third-party vendor, such as the NCHSAA.

Among those specifics are: gameplay rules; academic and enrollment standards; classification and post-season criteria; sportsmanship requirements; reducing annual fees; penalties for infractions that replaced monetary fines with a demerits system; and an appeals process more open to parents and students.

By comparison, the latest version gives the State Board of Education a less defined responsibility for adopting rules governing high school sports involving student participation rules, student health and safety rules, penalties, appeals, administrative, gameplay, fees, organization rules and reporting rules.

The Board of Education can enter into a four-year memorandum of understanding “with one or more nonprofit organizations to administer and enforce the requirements ... of the rules adopted by the (board) for interscholastic athletic activities at the high school level.”

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Sawyer said the latest version of HB91 accomplishes the goal of providing for more accountability and transparency of the NCHSAA if it is chosen to be the vendor.

Sen. Don Davis, D-Pitt, who voted for the bill, said he is hopeful the latest version will be effective in protecting the “greater good” interests of student-athletes.

“I just hope this will settle things down ... put an end to whatever concerns there have been,” Davis said.

He stressed that he doesn’t want legislators to try to revisit the bill if they aren’t satisfy with the outcome of a game or a dispute with the potential vendor.

“The House was unwilling to go along with the Senate’s original version of this plan,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.

“I suspect that the senators who were particularly vocal about high-school sports reform wanted to get some type of deal worked out before lawmakers left Raleigh for the holidays.

“Allowing the issue to linger into 2022 might have forced advocates to spend time and political capital reminding their colleagues why this issue should be addressed,” Kokai said.

Background

The September meeting included the three primary GOP Senate sponsors of the current legislation — Sawyer, Tom McInnis of Anson County and Todd Johnson of Union County, as well as House Majority leader John Bell IV, R-Wayne.

The legislators said the meeting was designed “to discuss the best pathway forward” for the bill.

The association’s commissioner, Que Tucker, responded to that meeting by saying the nonprofit “is thankful to be provided an opportunity to be at the table to discuss education-based athletics in our state.”

“We know there are still many hurdles to clear before we can reach an agreement with the State Board of Education,” she said.

“In the meantime, the association and its board of directors remain opposed to HB91.”

Jordan Monaghan, Cooper’s press secretary, said following the September meeting that “talks about how best to provide oversight of high-school athletics without unnecessary disruption were productive, agreement was reached, and we expect any legislation passed to reflect that agreement.”

The GOP legislators said in their September statement that “we believe this agreement will put the needs of our student athletes first, while allowing for a better, more transparent governing structure.

“We remain optimistic that this agreement will provide the NCHSAA and the State Board of Education the flexibility they need to oversee athletics, while also addressing concerns from parents, coaches and the athletes.”

Tucker said the athletic association remains convinced that HB91 is not necessary because “we believe the statutory authority already in place for the SBOE allows it to enter a formal memorandum of understanding with the NCHSAA.”

“Once we can turn our attention to formally working with the SBOE without legislative involvement, we hope to continue the long-standing cooperation … to lead high-school athletics,” Tucker said.”

Personal and political

As HB91 advanced through the Senate, it became increasingly clear how personal and political the process had become.

On one side is the leadership of a 108-year-old athletic association facing calls that it be dissolved or become an administrator with drastically reduced authority over middle- and high-school athletics.

On the other side are Republican senators 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 athletic association.

Caught in the middle are not only the boards of the NCHSAA and Board of Education, but also school administrators, athletic directors, coaches and more than 200,000 athletes of the 427 member schools.

The spark behind the revamped version of HB91 appears to have been a slow burn of nearly two years.

It stems from a 2019 football playoff eligibility appeal for Anson County High School by McInnis and the denial by the NCHSAA leadership. That dispute carried over into tense joint legislative oversight meetings in April and May.

The Senate co-primary bill sponsors applied the gut-and-replacement strategy to HB91 to initially insert language creating the N.C. Interscholastic Athletic Commission that would be overseen by the State Board of Education.

The NCHSAA said Sept. 9 that “we believe that this bill is unnecessarily prescriptive and leaves in place many requirements that are not in the best interests of our member schools and student athletes.

“It is hoped (House members) will at least look at the work we have done in a draft memorandum of understanding we shared with the State Board of Education.”

Kokai said in September that “it’s likely that the early threat to kill off the NCHSAA prompted all parties to agree to meet at the bargaining table.”

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