Up for grabs

Vance County High School receiver Kevon Burton hauls in a catch during a game with Orange earlier this year. Vance County and the rest of the schools affiliated with the N.C. High School Athletic Association are waiting to see the outcome of a state Senate proposal to eliminate the nonprofit NCHSAA and bring high-school athletics under the state government’s control.

HENDERSON — A growing cloud of uncertainty has enveloped the future of the N.C. High School Athletic Association following the emergence of a state Senate proposal to set up a new state agency to manage high school sports.

The Senate’s Education/Higher Education Committee met Tuesday afternoon to discuss the proposal, which stems in part from concerns raised by lawmakers over the amount of money the organization has accumulated.

Committee members met again on Wednesday and voted to endorse the bill, a decision that moves it along in the process to the Senate Finance Committee for further review. The Senate’s rules committee would also have to weigh in before it can reach the Senate floor for a vote.

But the proposed transfer of sports governance to a state agency is already drawing concern locally.

Vance County High School Athletic Director Joe Sharrow said he was taken aback by accusations leveled against the NCHSAA, adding that he believes the organization has done everything possible to treat schools, students and faculty fairly during its existence.

“This really seems like it’s coming out of left field,” Sharrow said. “There is a very good relationship between athletic directors and the NCHSAA. I really don’t feel like this is being asked for, and data needs to be collected because I think an overwhelming majority are content with the NCHSAA.”

In Tuesday’s meeting, senators outlined findings that highlighted what they view as substantial problems within the NCHSAA, and criticized policies that they believe did not explicitly focus on the care of student athletes.

One aspect they discussed pertained to the $41 million in assets the nonprofit NCHSAA has accumulated, which lawmakers said was 43% more than the high school athletic associations of Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia had combined.

Other major issues discussed during the meeting included findings that the NCHSAA accumulated $400,000 in fines from member schools and had distributed $40,500 in scholarships among 35 students.

The committee proposal would supplant the NCHSAA, starting in the 2022-23 school year, by splitting the oversight of high school athletics in North Carolina between the State Board of Education and the proposed replacement for the NCHSAA, the N.C. Interscholastic Athletics Commission.

Players eligibility and safety would fall under the State Board of Education’s jurisdiction, with two appeals boards set up to review eligibility decisions.

Conference classifications, gameplay, officiating, sportsmanship and scheduling would be monitored by the new Interscholastic Athletics Commission, which would be made up of 17 appointees. The bill calls for nine of those to come from Gov. Roy Cooper, while the remaining eight would come from the N.C. General Assembly, four each from the Senate and House.

The bill would make 2021-22 a transition year, allowing the State Board of Education to let the NCHSAA remain in charge provided the association agrees to stop fining schools for rules violations.

Sharrow said he understands that not every decision the NCHSAA makes is popular with everyone, but he is worried that replacing it with a state commission would undo a tremendous amount of progress made in recent years to provide student-athletes with the right resources and people needed for them to thrive.

Another area addressed in the HB91 amendment was the future of private and charter schools.

Under the proposal, four Catholic high schools that are currently members of the NCHSAA would be barred from playoff competition, and this would be forced to join another association that governs private-school athletics.

And the bill would in practice bar charter schools from competing at the 1A level — a provision that directly affects Henderson Collegiate, Vance Charter School and Oxford Prep. All charter schools would have to play a level higher than their enrollment would otherwise suggest.

Charter schools and the Catholic schools have been the target of repeated complaints from traditional high schools about unfair competition because they can draw students from a larger area than traditional programs.

Those complaints resurfaced during Henderson Collegiate’s run to the state men’s basketball final in 2018-19 after it defeated a team from Chowan County’s traditional high school in the playoffs.

Lance Stallings, the athletic director at Vance Charter, said he is concerned about the future of high school athletics without the NCHSAA and that he believes the organization is more than capable of leading its member schools as they continue to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The NCHSAA has provided safe, fair and quality education-based athletics for 100 years,” Stallings said in a statement. “Commissioner [Que] Tucker, the board and past representatives continuously implement changes that are critical in providing the best experience for our student-athletes across the state. We are confident that these practices will continue as the NCHSAA finds opportunities for growth.”

Like Sharrow, Stallings disagrees with the idea that the State Board of Education and the Interscholastic Athletics Commission would be more qualified to manage high school athletics in the state and said he hopes that any large-scale changes associated with the HB91 amendment are avoided.

“Recently I had the opportunity to experience [the NCHSAA’s] outstanding relationship with the [N.C. Athletic Director’s Association] and many educational leaders within our state,” Stallings said. “Those serving and who have served before us have laid a foundation for success that if broken could potentially deteriorate the experiences of our student-athletes.”

Sharrow said that he believes the pandemic served as a catalyst for opposition to the NCHSAA, and singled out the organization’s large financial reserve as one of the primary criticisms he has heard in recent months.

Sharrow added that the reserver should not be seen as a negative and credited the association for using it to help out schools around the state while the COVID-19 pandemic hindered many of them from a financial standpoint.

“The reason they built that endowment to begin with was because of emergency funds,” Sharrow said. “The NCHSAA distributed millions of dollars from that endowment back to schools this past year and if it wasn’t for that, [Vance County] would have been in trouble. The NCHSAA has done a lot of good, innovative things recently and sometimes that can be scary for some people.”