The N.C. Senate approved legislation Wednesday that would strip the N.C. High School Athletic Association of most of its oversight authority.
The Senate voted 28-14 on third reading to approve the latest version of controversial House Bill 91 with the continuing support of one Senate Democrat, Kirk deViere of Cumberland County.
On Sept. 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 Wednesday, while three Democrats — Sarah Crawford of Wake County, Joyce Waddell of Mecklenburg County and Mike Woodard of Durham County — switched from a yes on Sept. 1 to a no.
Given that Republicans have a 28-22 majority in the Senate, if deViere and Garrett stick with their second-reading vote, there would be enough support to override a potential veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
HB91 was returned to the state House for concurrence on the changes made by Senate bill sponsors that began on July 21.
Instead of agreeing with the changes, the House sent HB91 to its K-12 Education committee for consideration before a potential return to House Rules and Operations.
If the bill becomes law, much of the legislation would go into effect Oct. 15, providing the NCHSAA agrees to become a vendor of the State Board of Education.
The NCHSAA said in a statement that its board of directors and staff are “disappointed that HB91 passed the Senate today.”
“ 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.”
“Our hope now rests with the members of the House of Representatives, and it is hoped they will at least look at the work we have done in a draft memorandum of understanding we shared with the State Board of Education.“
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Anson, gave the latest in a series of speeches in support for HB91 Wednesday, citing again the 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 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.
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell, and McInnis have said the ejected players were denied due process from a potential appeal process.
McInnis said he brought a football helmet as a prop "because it represents every one of the student-athletes that we have in North Carolina ... especially those that have been deprived or defrauded of a position of play because of some rule or regulation that was irrelevant in the grand scheme of things of children playing children's games."
McInnis claimed HB91 is "about the student-athlete, and not about politics."
Meanwhile, WRAL-affiliate HighSchoolOT.com recently conducted a survey of the 427 athletic directors, 230 of whom responded. The majority — 86.1% — said they opposed HB91. Just 5.2% supported it.
Sawyer has said athletic officials and parents have been afraid to speak out about the NCHSAA because of concerns of potential retribution.
"I'm asking you to dig deep into your soul and in your heart when you vote on this legislation," McInnis said.
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 SBE the ability to "adopt rules related to enrollment and transfer of students between public school units."
Another change: students would not be allowed to participate in a sport if they enrolled based "solely for athletic participation purposes."
Also, 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."
The bill sponsors and other GOP senators have been unabashed in blaming the NCHSAA for the necessity of the bill.
Sawyer claims the NCHSAA, as it is currently operating, is doing a disservice to 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.
On Wednesday, Sawyer dismissed the proposed NCHSAA memorandum of understanding by saying it is not about the student-athletes, but rather "money, that was the pushback, money — penalties, preferred vendors, annual fees and endowment funds."
McInnis said that "the Friday night lights are what they live for, one of the reasons some are in school to begin with; otherwise, they might be on another path that would be less than stellar for their future."
The NCHSAA said its board and staff have been making aa good-faith effort with legislators on an amendment to HB91, as well as a draft memorandum of understanding, “both which align with many of the central issues legislators have expressed concerns with, including membership dues, penalties and gate revenue shares.”
“ Unfortunately, these documents and numerous recent decisions by the board of directors … have essentially been dismissed.”
Supporters for reforming, but not dissolving, the NCHSAA question how much statewide backing there is for HB91.
During the Aug. 26 Senate Education/Higher Education committee meeting, bill sponsors received significant pushback from coaches, athletics directors and school administrators during the brief public comment period.
Those public speakers claimed bill sponsors are overstating, if not exaggerating, the number of constituents they have heard from.
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.
Public speakers and some Democratic senators have cited concerns that HB91 — whether intentionally or unintentionally — could cause eligibility issues.
Potentially controversial in the latest version of HB91 are the ways the bill would take into consideration the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to high school academics and athletics.
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.”
The speakers 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 Cooper’s position remains uncertain given “he has not said much, if anything, about oversight of high school sports.”
John Dinan, a Wake Forest University political science professor, said that Democratic legislators’ willingness to vote with Republicans on initial passage of a bill “is no guarantee that they will vote the same way when it comes to overriding a governor’s veto.”
“Time and time again, we have seen bills appear to have veto-proof support on initial passage only to see Democratic support fade away once the governor wields his veto pen.”