Opinion: The Woodshed

Update: Legislature and the N.C. School Athletics Association working on a deal

Update: Key legislators confirm for Carolina Journal they completed a more than two-hour closed-door meeting with the North Carolina High School Athletics on Wednesday, July 18th, 2021.  The legislators tell Carolina Journal the meeting went better than expected and they believe a deal will be reached over the next few weeks. At the same time, they plan to continue their legislative efforts, but if a deal can be reached the current legislation (H-91) would be altered dramatically.

House Bill 91, Accountability and Fair Play in Athletics is the result of a months-long investigation into the NCHSAA that oversees high school sports in North Carolina. The bill would dramatically overhaul the governance of high school sports in North Carolina.

“Transparency and accountability which we as legislators have been asking for from the North Carolina High School Athletic Association for months but have not received,” said Senator Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell.

“It is evident by the actions of NCHSAA that there needs to be a dramatic change in leadership, management, and process,” State Senator Tom McInnis, R-Moore, told CJ. “This bill does what is needed to protect high school students, their parents, coaches, and our public schools’ athletic programs with their limited budgets.”

NCHSAA leaders have defended the organization and called the accusations surrounding the organization “disheartening and infuriating.”

I am not saying it’s the Camp David Accords that will create lasting peace, but the possible meeting between the high school governing body and key state senators is a big deal. It will likely decide the future of the NCHSAA and proposed legislative transformation of high school sports in N.C.

On one side of the table will be McInnis,  Sawyer, and Senator Todd Johnson (R-Union), on the other side will be the leadership of the NCHSAA,   including Executive Director Que Tucker and key board members.

The NCHSAA commissioner recently said she did not believe meeting with the three senators would be fruitful. However, it appears both sides will give it a try. Superintendent of Public Instruction Cathy Truitt has voiced support for House Bill 91 but is likely open to a compromise.

So why deal now?

The proposed legislation that has already passed two committees would be a slow death for the organization. So, any deal would be better than House Bill 91.

It could mean the difference between survival and not. Tucker said the proposed legislation is a “full-scale attack on the ability and desire of the NCHSAA member schools to govern their own affairs as it relates to high school athletics, education-based athletics.”

If that is true, more reason for Tucker not only to cut a deal but advocate its passage by her own board and members.

Legislature

It is much cheaper for the state to convince the NCHSAA to reform itself rather than create a new governmental oversight authority. Plus, even the key senators that are critical of the NCHSAA will concede that the organization does some things well, such as staging the state championship and tournaments. Signing an agreement with an organization to achieve reform is much easier politically and likely offers better results. Plus a deal with NCHSAA likely gives the legislature input on the use of the current assets of NCHSAA. There is no way to achieve that through legislation.

How it would likely work

The senators would likely help negotiate a deal, but they would have to get buy-in from the governor and significant support from the General Assembly.

Likely the chair of the State Board of Education and superintendent of public instruction could sign a binding contract with the NCHSAA outlining a new agreement with the State of NC, one also approved by their existing board of directors. The legislature has been concerned that there is no written contract or memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the state and the NCHSAA. A written agreement would put one issue to rest.

There are a few broad areas of concern that will have to be addressed in an agreement.

The NCHSSA board would have to change significantly to please the legislature

NCHSAA would have to reconfigure its board of directors so that the State of North Carolina, through legislative and gubernatorial appointees, has roughly half of the appointments. This new board can be used to address many areas of concern for the overall direction of NCHSAA. We believe the General Assembly would say no to any deal that did not change the NCHSAA board and provide some legislative oversight.

New funding formula

The NCHSAA has nearly $40 million in total assets, the most of any similar association. Legislators are concerned that an organization so well-funded, mostly through public schools, continues to heavily fine its member schools for rules violations.

Any agreement would have to include a ban on NCHSAA issuing cash fines to schools. The NCHSAA would also have to agree to cut per-student membership fees and lessen the burden on schools for some fixed time, perhaps 5 years. A future re-formulated NCHSAA board of directors would then decide what is next. The NCHSAA would likely have to agree to fund catastrophic insurance on behalf of the public schools for several years which they just started doing. The NCHSAA would likely have to agree to end its “preferred vendor program” which schools complain adds to their costs, rather than saving them funds.

Video rights

Legislators are likely to insist that the NCHSAA relinquish any claim to video/streaming rights of regular-season games. This became a big issue during covid and is likely a point of contention in the future. The NCHSAA would retain all video/streaming rights to their playoff and championship games.

Independent appeals process

Parents from across the state have complained about an unfair and unjust appeals process. The commissioner of the NCHSAA appears to sit in on and direct every step in this process. The legislature will insist on a complete revamping of the student eligibility and waiver process. Senators are unlikely to agree to a compromise without this provision.

The NCHSSA will likely ask that any decisions about actual competitions, divisions, classifications, and conference placement be left as they are, and future decisions are made by the newly reconstituted board. This will anger some legislators, especially in the NC House who wanted something done about charter schools that are dominating lower classifications in some sports. On the other hand, the legislature may insist that charter schools in lower classifications be “moved up” to level the playing field.  People will always disagree about how to create divisions, conferences, and alignments. This is part of the thankless job the NCHSAA has on this matter. However, there is no real evidence that a new group of people would have better answers on this.

Finally, unwritten in any agreement would be the fate of Tucker. Legislators are unlikely to agree to anything that does not pinpoint an exit for her, who they hold responsible for much of the organization’s failings. The NCHSAA would likely insist on a graceful exit for Tucker who has served the organization for more than three decades. Even if the NCHSAA eventually chooses a new commissioner, the current board and staff are likely going to want Tucker to have some role given her extended service and institutional knowledge.