The sausage-making isn’t always pretty, but sometimes, committee review and bipartisan debate transform a bill filed as a temper tantrum into worthy legislation that will benefit North Carolina.
Gov. Roy Cooper signed the Accountability and Fair Play in Athletics Act into law on Tuesday, brokering a truce between the North Carolina High School Athletics Association’s supporters and critics. The law adds several layers of oversight while seeking to preserve the NCHSAA rather than replacing it with a new state-run sanctioning body.
“For months, we worked tirelessly to determine the best governing structure that supports our student-athletes and is transparent and accountable,” Sen. Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell, said in a news release. “After productive conversations with the NCHSAA, State Board of Education, governor’s office and our Democratic colleagues, we’ve established a clear path forward.”
High school sports first landed on lawmakers’ radar when Senate Majority Whip Tom McInnis, R-Moore, disputed the NCHSAA’s decision to disqualify Anson High School from the state football playoffs in 2019 following a bench-clearing brouhaha in Anson’s game against Richmond Senior High. McInnis represents both schools.
The Senate Committee on Education and Higher Education gutted House Bill 91, a crossfiled version of a Senate bill that became law, and replaced it with a McInnis-backed measure to sideline the NCHSAA and establish a new state-appointed athletics commission.
As we said in a July editorial, injecting politics into high school sports by handing the referee’s whistle to handpicked allies of General Assembly leaders and the governor was the wrong call. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and legislators struck a reasonable compromise.
In its ratified form, HB 91 allows the State Board of Education to sign a four-year memorandum of understanding with a nonprofit organization to administer scholastic sports. While the NCHSAA isn’t named, it’s the only such group in North Carolina. The association will be subject to open meetings laws and must open its books to the N.C. Office of the State Auditor.
Several legislators questioned the NCHSAA’s $41 million endowment fund, accusing the group of hoarding dues, fines and ticket proceeds while member schools scrimped and saved their way through the COVID-19 pandemic. State Auditor Beth Wood’s eagle-eyed staff will keep a close eye on the taxpayer money that flows through this private organization.
The new law requires the State Board of Education to set up an independent appeals board where schools can challenge infractions and penalties. That takes a bite out of the NCHSAA’s authority, but it doesn’t allow for the kind of overt political interference we initially feared.
“This legislation represents a herculean effort to provide the best opportunities for our student-athletes, while also setting clear standards for all involved,” McInnis said in a prepared statement. “I’m thankful for everyone coming to the table and working to find a solution.”
Association allies would have preferred an entirely hands-off approach, but stakeholders cobbled together a compromise everyone could live with. The NCHSAA didn’t oppose the bill in its final form.
Instead of wresting control of high school sports away from the NCHSAA, lawmakers opted for a shared governance structure much like the systems in place at the University of North Carolina, where faculty committees make recommendations that trustees must review and decide whether and how to enact.
State audits and open meetings should have already been the norm for any agency, public or private, that collects revenue from our taxpayer-funded public schools. And added oversight from the State Board of Education and its as-yet unnamed penalty appeals panel should ensure that student-athletes’ constitutional rights are respected.
We blew the whistle on the NCHSAA when it placed North Stanly High School’s cheerleading team on probation in September 2019 after cheerleaders posed for a picture with a Trump campaign banner. The association forbids campaign activity, but First Amendment case law is clear that public schools can’t punish students for political speech.
Even before the General Assembly ramped up NCHSAA oversight, experts told us the nonprofit can’t lawfully regulate student speech in ways its member schools cannot. The association ultimately lifted North Stanly’s probation.
Incorporating as a nonprofit has its benefits, but private groups that administer public school sports are exercising authority the government has delegated to them. Requiring the same kind of transparency we’d expect from a public agency is sensible and prudent. Play ball!