Legislative hearing into NCHSAA begins: How did we get here?

By Dallas Woodhouse

Raleigh, NC – Leaders of the North Carolina High School Athletics Association (NCHSAA) are scheduled to testify before the newly created, Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations Subcommittee on Interscholastic Athletic an investigative committee formed to examine the operations of the non-profit in charge of North Carolina High School Sports.

Photo by Gene Galin

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger will co-chair the committee’s work.  The committee is tasked to “further examine issues concerning the administration and management of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, and the oversight and supervision of interscholastic athletics in North Carolina public high schools.”

Carolina Journal first reported in March that state lawmakers began a sweeping investigation of the N.C. High School Athletic Association, (NCHSAA) a move that could lead to changes in how high school sports are governed.

Carolina Journal reviewed a decade of tax documents showing the nonprofit overseeing high school sports in North Carolina has $41 million in assets, mostly from dues from public high schools. The $41 million in the bank is tens of millions more than other state High School Sports governing bodies report.

CJ covered the NCHSAA response here. “Over the past several days, it’s been disheartening and honestly infuriating to hear some of the comments that the members of our General Assembly have made about the NCHSAA, its governance and leadership of high school athletics in our state,” said Jerry Simmons, president of the NCHSAA board and principal of New Bern High School. “To set the record straight, I want to unequivocally state that the NCHSAA is not an organization devoid of oversight and is not lining the pockets of the staff and board members. Any assertion otherwise is careless, uninformed, and downright false.”

Senators involved in this issue have accused NCHSAA of lacking transparency and being uncooperative with legislative inquiries.

Sen. Vickie Sawyer (R-Iredell) told WRAL-High School-OT that questions about the organization’s finances will be among the top concern of the committee.

“Why is the North Carolina High School Athletic Association the richest, the wealthiest and the most prosperous Athletic association in America by millions of dollars,” she said.

Last week, Sawyer joined other Republican senators in introducing a bill that would require the NCHSAA to undergo state audits. Exactly where this investigation goes and what the General Assembly does next is still unclear.

How Did We Get Here?

It was not originally about the money. It was a series of different unrelated decisions and actions by NCHSAA and subsequent reactions to inquiries that spurred lawmakers to begin the investigation that could lead to major changes in how high school sports are governed in North Carolina.

Legislators are currently debating the “Save Women’s Sports Act”, which would require “sex-specific” teams to be designated at the middle and high school levels, with a person’s gender determination based “solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”

As reported by WRAL, the bill specifically says no student who is born male should be allowed to participate in sports designated for females, women, or girls. It also would prevent the N.C. High School Athletic Association sanctioning a school for enforcing the gender requirement.

Republican lawmakers disagree with the NCHSAA.  NCHSAA’s gender policy provides a pathway for transgender male students to participate on female high school athletic teams.

“I do not want to wait until biological females are pushed out of female sports, and all their records are broken and scholarships are lost,” Brody said as reported in the News and Observer.

But this is an issue the General Assembly would have preferred to avoid, and could have if the NCHSAA had a different policy.

A scuffle in Anson

In the second game of the 2019 season, 4-A Richmond was dominating much smaller Anson county as the first half came to a close. A scuffle broke out and with Richmond already well in command, both coaches decided to call the game at halftime. Several Anson players were disciplined by their coach.

But the Anson Bearcats, went on to clinch their first conference championship in 10 years, setting them up for the high school playoffs.

But the NCHSAA said no.

While the game officials only ejected two players involved, the NCHSAA in a post-game review ejected six additional Anson players for leaving the bench. Because the Anson Bears had more than three ejections in the season, the Anson team, was disqualified for the playoffs for the season. The Superintendent and community were outraged by the decision.

“The guys cried, got really emotional,” Anson Coach Ralph Jackson said as reported by WSOC-TV.

State Senator Tom McInnis who represents Anson County took up the Bears cause. The punishment did not appear to fit the crime. More important to Sen. McInnis was the lack of a legitimate appeals process. A private organization that was unelected and appeared unaccountable to his community was having a tremendous effect on his constituents. As he explained that there was nothing he could do to heartbroken players, parents, and coaches, he vowed to learn more about this powerful organization.

Covid Confusion

Last summer North Carolina high school sports, made possible by high school football revenue, was in a state of confusion

Legislators tell Carolina Journal that NCHSAA and its Director Que Tucker began to take almost comical public positions about the start of the fall sports season.

As NC Civitas reported at the time, The NCHSAA says they are sticking with the August 1 start of preseason sports camps until they hear from Gov. Roy Cooper, while at the same time casting doubt that it will actually happen.

In a July 7 interview with the News & Observer, Tucker said, “Based on what I hear as it relates to just getting school underway Aug. 17, it would be difficult in my mind to think we would be able to say, ‘Oh absolutely we’re going to start all sports, of any kind, on Aug. 1.’ But that’s based on me being a classroom teacher and knowing what’s entailed in opening up school under normal circumstances and it’s just difficult for me to envision we can do anything (with athletics) prior to school starting.”

“I’m not today, July 8, going to tell you that Aug. 1 is off the table,” Tucker continued.

“Because if I tell you that, the next question is, ‘Well if you’re not gonna start Aug. 1, when will you start?’ I’m not gonna tell you that Aug. 1 is off the table until I can put another date in its place,” Tucker said. 

To say the Commissioner was offering extremely mixed messages would be an understatement. In a period of 48 hours, she said she did not see how school would start by August 17, but she was sticking with the August 1 start of practice because she did not have a better answer.

Some legislators told CJ this was an irresponsible way to deal with 15- to 18-year-old high school athletes. Giving them false hope of the start of season that was in no way going to happen and did not happen. It was clear to some lawmakers Tucker had made a political decision not to “get ahead of Governor Cooper.”

Lack of Advocacy for Parents

In late February, Carolina Journal reported on a grassroots parent effort to get Gov. Cooper to raise the capacity limits on outdoor sports events, including high school football.

The effort was driven by a parent from Sen. Todd Johnson’s District.  While not in time for the first Football game of the season, Gov. Cooper did sign a new executive order lifting the 100 person limit, moving to 30% of capacity.

However, while parents and legislators are advocating for parents to be able to watch their children play sports, the NCHSAA, would not advocate for the athletes and parents’ cause.

N.C. High School Athletic Association Commissioner Que Tucker, sent a letter to member schools stating “It has been suggested that the NCHSAA isn’t doing its part of ‘put pressure’ on Governor Cooper and (Secretary of the Department of Health & Human Services) Dr. [Mandy] Cohen! That is unlikely to happen, as it has never been the philosophy of the NCHSAA to pressure people with more authority and more expertise in some issues,” Tucker wrote.

This was another source of frustrations for legislators.  Why were parents and legislators having to advocate for the ability of parents to watch when a member-based organization that collects dues supposedly for the betterment of high school sports and athletes would not advocate for either or parents?

A Milking on Streaming

Because of state and NCHSAA regulations, many parents and all fans have been prevented from attending athletic contests this year. Schools throughout the state decided to stream games live. But the NCHSAA told its member schools they had to use that organization’s streaming service, charging parents $70 per year. NCHSAA told its schools that, should they not use the fee-based service, in-which NCHSAA keeps all the revenue, the member schools would be charged $250 for every event they streamed.

This outraged Sen. Jim Perry (R-Wayne) and got the senator off the sidelines at the forefront of the still undefined reform efforts.

Different lawmakers came to the table with different concerns about the non-profit that governs North Carolina high school sports. They started talking and started looking. Then they found a startling $41 million in the bank. Then the real controversy kicked off.