NC Senate bill would replace NCHSAA

Sen. Todd Johnson's proposal would create a state-run commission

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association is still formulating a response to Gov. Roy Cooper's five week extension of Phase 2 of the state's coronavirus response plan (Shawn Krest / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — The North Carolina High School Athletic Association would be replaced by a proposed state commission to oversee interscholastic public school sports in a measure unveiled Tuesday in a legislative committee.

The bill, which received a hearing by a Senate education panel, comes after Republican lawmakers have publicly questioned association leaders this year about the nonprofit’s authority and assets of nearly $42 million as of June 2020. It’s the wealthiest group of its kind in the country, according to legislative data. Senators say that contrasts with schools struggling to raise money for uniforms and equipment and the fines they can pay the association for eligibility violations.

“The amount of money that’s being sucked from our public schools with no public oversight would not be allowed anywhere in our government,” said Sen. Todd Johnson, a Union County Republican and bill author. “So why are we allowing it in our state athletics?”

The measure would essentially remove the association as the organization that carries out rules set by the State Board of Education. The association would be replaced beginning in the 2022-23 school year by a new 17-member North Carolina Interscholastic Athletic Commission, composed of superintendents, principals, athletic directors or certain coaches.

The proposed commission — with nine members picked by the governor and eight by legislative leaders — could hire a director. It would carry out student eligibility rules already being set by the State Board of Education and adopt and enforce gameplay rules, including the creation of a demerit system that could lead to nonmonetary punishments.

Special panels would be created by the education board to hear eligibility appeals and by the commission to hear game appeals. Johnson said people he’s talked say they have little faith in the current NCHSAA appeals process.

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Wake County Democrat, asked Johnson whether effectively eliminating the NCHSAA was warranted: “This bill essentially renders a death penalty on the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.”

The association board has made changes recently, agreeing to take over some expenses of member schools and reduce its cut of some playoff game receipts. But Johnson said association leaders don’t appear willing to go further.

“Had we seen movement toward a shared goal of keeping that student-athlete focus, I do not think we would be here,” Johnson said. “Seeing no genuine effort moving toward that, I think this is more of the appropriate stance.”

NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker said late Tuesday that the committee discussion represented “a full-scale attack” on the ability and desire of the group’s more than 400 member schools “to govern their own affairs as it relates to high school athletics.”

“We believe that high school athletics in our state should not be a political issue. And when you start pulling away or turning the pages of that bill, clearly there are politics involved in how this new commission … would be established,” Tucker told reporters in an video call. The group remains willing to work with elected leaders to make improvements, she added.

The NCHSAA, which began in 1913, had been connected to the University of North Carolina until it became an independent nonprofit in 2010. Any final bill would have to clear the Senate and House before going to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

A committee vote could come as early as Wednesday on the bill, which also would prevent private schools from participating in commission sports and championships, as they can now. Johnson said it’s unfair for private schools, which have more control over recruiting students, to compete against schools that largely rely on students in attendance districts.

Home-schooled students could participate in public school athletics at the community school they would otherwise be attending. The state education board would set rules. Some homeschoolers can already play.

The bill says the commission, which would be independent but sit in the state Department of Administration, would be funded solely by fees and state postseason receipts. Annual fees by member schools would be reduced once its account exceeds a certain level. The commission would be subject to state audits.