Our Opinion: Lawmakers, be good sports and kindly butt out
Dave DiFilippo cartoon
When legislators have a vested interest in the outcome, no institution is safe from their meddling — not even a group as far removed from politics as the state’s sanctioning body for high school sports.
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association found itself under N.C. Senate leaders’ microscope this spring amid questions about the nonprofit’s $41 million endowment fund and the modest fines it issues schools for fielding ineligible players. A Senate subcommittee held an April hearing to grill NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker.
With a state budget battle, COVID-19 relief and debate over the governor’s emergency powers consuming most of the oxygen on Jones Street, lawmakers’ athletic association gripes seemed to be on the back burner — until Wednesday.
The Senate Committee on Education and Higher Education introduced legislation to replace the NCHSAA with a new state-appointed body that would be known as the N.C. Interscholastic Athletic Commission, a bombshell that reverberated throughout the Tar Heel State and sent coaches, athletic directors, principals and superintendents scrambling to defend the current model.
Committee members gutted House Bill 91, an extant version of successful Senate legislation to reduce regulatory restraints for behavior analysts who help children with autism, and substituted the text with new language to divorce public school athletics programs from the NCHSAA. Since HB 91 passed the House in its original form, the maneuver allows senators to vote on the bill this year. General Assembly rules require legislation to pass in the chamber where it originates before the May crossover deadline in order to remain viable.
The association landed on lawmakers’ radar when Senate Majority Whip Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, 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, whose Senate District 25 includes Richmond, Scotland, Moore and Anson counties, represents both schools.
The fourth-term senator’s fingerprints are all over the reworked HB 91. The new commission his bill seeks to create would consist of 17 members, nine appointed by the governor and four each by the House and Senate. Commissioners would be athletic directors, superintendents or associate superintendents, principals or assistant principals and coaches.
That structure isn’t much different from the NCHSAA Board of Directors, a 23-person body whose members fall into the same categories with the exception of five affiliate board members representing the association’s referees and officials, the N.C. Coaches Association, N.C. School Boards Association, N.C. Department of Public Instruction and N.C. Athletic Directors Association.
In a Wednesday news conference, Commissioner Tucker made an appeal for compromise, pledging to work with the General Assembly to address its concerns as an alternative to upending the athletic regulatory system that’s been in place since 1913.
Tucker acknowledged the NCHSAA has some flaws, but she urged senators to collaborate with the association instead of casting it aside. Her proposal is reasonable, and lawmakers ought to listen.
Senate skeptics wring their hands over the association’s nonprofit status and say a government agency should oversee athletic competition for public schools. In this case, public vs. private is largely a distinction without a difference. The NCHSAA’s board president and vice president are a public school principal and superintendent, respectively.
The technically private group is so quasi-public that experts say it’s held to the same standards as government when it comes to upholding student-athletes’ constitutional rights. The NCHSAA placed North Stanly High’s cheerleading team on probation in September 2019 after cheerleaders posed for pictures with a Trump 2020 banner. The punishment violated the First Amendment’s protections for student political speech and was later rescinded.
HB 91 brings a sledgehammer to a job that calls for a scalpel. The athletic association is far from perfect, but the last thing needed is politicians with little to no experience in high school sports getting involved.
This boils down to a few legislators grinding personal axes at taxpayer expense. They’re milking that grievance for all it’s worth in a cynical ploy to score points with voters in their home districts. Gov. Roy Cooper is likely to veto the Republican-backed measure, making this little more than an exercise in futility.
When it comes to sportsmanship and fair play, the General Assembly has a lot more to learn from student-athletes than it has to teach. Instead of needlessly politicizing high school sports, legislators’ time would be better spent negotiating with the governor to pass the state’s first new budget since 2018.
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