NCHSAA announces slimmed-down football divisions

The maximum number of games was also reduced by one to 10

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s reclassification will halve the number of football championships handed out each year, eliminating the four AA subdivisions. (Madeline Gray / North State Journal)

“The new normal” is a phrase that’s been used a lot recently in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But it also pertains to the status of high school football in North Carolina beyond the current crisis, thanks to changes unanimously approved last week by the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s board of directors.

Starting with the 2021-22 school year, the state football playoffs will no longer be subdivided, with only four classification championships contested rather than the eight under the current system.

The board also reduced the maximum number of games allowed from 11 to 10 while mandating that the season can no longer begin earlier than two days before the last Friday in August.

The changes to the football calendar were described by NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker during a virtual press conference as “health and safety measures” not influenced by the COVID-19. She said they were being discussed with coaches around the state “for years.”

While coaches signed off on the reduction of games, the response hasn’t been as accepting of the elimination of postseason subdivisions 4AA, 3AA, 2AA and 1AA. Those whose schools’ enrollment are at the lower end of their newly enlarged classifications are especially concerned.

“I think they create the most even playing field, especially in 1A and 4A where the disparity is so large,” Scotland High coach Richard Bailey, speaking to the Laurinburg Exchange, said of the additional playoff brackets. “It’s especially a big deal in sports like football that take so many kids to play.”

The elimination of subdivisions comes after a proposal to add one or two new classifications failed to pass a statewide vote needed to change the NCHSAA’s bylaws, according to the organization’s president, New Bern High School principal Jerry Simmons.

Tucker said the move puts “football back on equal footing with all other sports where we offer one state championship” and added that the number of teams participating in playoff competition will remain at 64 for each classification.

Because the state association will begin using other factors besides a school’s “average daily membership” in its reclassification formula — including an “individual student percentage” that takes into account external factors that affect enrollment, such as hurricanes and other natural disasters — the placement of schools will become more equitable.

“There are some other factors that could be used to override the need for subdivisions,” Tucker said.

In addition to the changes in football classifications and scheduling, the NCHSAA also announced that it is allocating $4 million from its undesignated funds as a one-time subsidy to help schools whose athletic budgets have been strained by significant losses in revenue and added expenses associated with COVID-19 protocols.

Simmons said that the criteria for allocating the funds is still being determined but praised Tucker and the NCHSAA for being “great stewards of our assets.”

“This is an opportunity to offset some of the operating expenses of our member schools that are falling short with limited gate receipts, concessions and things of that sort,” Simmons said.

None of the announced changes will affect the amended 2020-21 athletic calendar, which moved football to the spring and set the start date for boys’ and girls’ basketball for Jan. 4.

Other changes announced by the NCHSAA board last week include the addition of “officials timeouts” during basketball games to provide periodic breaks for players and officials who will be required to wear masks during competition.

Officials in all sports will also be required to use whistle shields as an added safety measure, and concussion protocol monitoring may now be done virtually as an alternative to in-person monitoring.

“We have asked more of this board than any other in our organization’s history,” Tucker said. “And they have risen to the challenge like the true public servants and leaders each one is.

“The board of directors has been open to new and innovative ideas that move our association forward, and because of their vision and leadership, we believe the member schools of our state will reap the benefits not only in these few months to come, but in the years to come.”