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October 25, 2021

State officials reach deal on prep sports governing, but details remain to be worked out

By GARY D. ROBERTSON

Associated Press

RALEIGH (AP) — Legislation that would lead to new controls upon the nonprofit body governing North Carolina high school sports has been agreed to in principle, state officials said Thursday. But there’s still uncertainty, as all the details haven’t been worked out.

House and Senate GOP members who have scrutinized the North Carolina High School Athletic Association have said changes are needed to address what they deem is the group’s oversized control over member schools, eligibility decisions and monetary penalties. They have also highlighted the flush coffers of the association, which was founded more than an century ago.

The GOP lawmakers from both chambers said legislators from both parties met Wednesday with representatives of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, the State Board of Education and NCHSAA “to discuss the best pathway forward” on legislation.

“We’re happy to report that after months of examining how best to support our student athletes and high school athletics we’ve come to an agreement,” the Republicans’ statement read. “We believe this agreement will put the needs of our student athletes first, while allowing for a better, more transparent governing structure.”

Senators who initially proposed in July to replace NCHSAA with a new athletic commission passed a substitute this month that would instead tell the association and the State Board of Education to sign a formal memo on how the association would carry out board policy on interscholastic sports.

But association leaders chafed under all the financial and administrative directives in the bill, leading to opposition by Senate Democrats.

While the agreement will still require a memorandum of understanding between the board and the NCHSAA, the anticipated bill will be less prescriptive about what it must contain, according to Sen. Vickie Sawyer, an Iredell County Republican shepherding the Senate’s proposals.

Sawyer said Thursday that bill language won’t be finalized for at least a week. It would have to pass both chambers before going to Gov. Cooper’s desk.

“I think we can have a bill that we bring back to you that’s unanimous in support,” House Majority Leader John Bell of Wayne County said Thursday after the chamber voted to start formal negotiations with the Senate on the measure.

The NCHSAA’s top leadership downplayed the announcement. For now, the association and its governing board remain opposed to the bill, association Commissioner Que Tucker said.

“We know there are still many hurdles to clear before we can reach an agreement with the State Board of Education,” Tucker said in a statement. “Once we can turn our attention to formally working with the (education board) without legislative involvement, we hope to continue the long-standing cooperation between the association and (board) to lead high school athletics.”

But Cooper, who would be asked to sign any bill into law, seemed on board with the measure. The governor picks most voting members of the State Board of Education.

“Talks about how best to provide oversight of high school athletics without unnecessary disruption were productive, agreement was reached and we expect any legislation passed to reflect that agreement,” Cooper spokesperson Jordan Monaghan wrote in an email Thursday.

Sawyer said expectations are that the agreement will require the rules on eligibility, school punishments and appeals to be worked out in public though the State Board of Education’s administrative process. A separate board also would handle player and team appeals, Sawyer said.

“It actually will put the student and their parent at the table when it comes to their athletic futures and their involvement in their school,” Sawyer said. She also said it “is absolutely our intent” to require the NCHSAA to be subject to state open meeting and public records laws, but does not know if it will be spelled out in the bill.

Allies of the association pushed back successfully against the original measure, which could have been the death knell for a group originally founded in 1913.

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