May 12, 2008
In School Sports, Who Makes the Call?
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
Spartanburg fans began wildly celebrating the narrow victory over Summerville High School, only to fall silent when a referee signaled that the shot came too late. Three referees huddled for about a minute without consulting video footage of the televised game - following the rules of the state's high school league - before confirming that the shot was no good.
A week later, two Spartanburg legislators introduced a bill in the South Carolina Legislature to require referees in high school playoff games to watch video replays.
"This was the biggest game of the year," said state Rep. Harold Mitchell Jr. (D), who proposed the bill. "Some senior kids will never step onto the playing fields or courts ever after that, and to have something taken away and stolen like that, that's something that would stick with you forever."
The replay bill died this session. But there are examples aplenty of state legislators stepping over the line onto turf usually overseen by states' high school activities associations.
"We don't have any control over what they get involved with, and they have the authority to make laws," said Jerome Singleton, the commissioner of the South Carolina High School League . "We don't have any authority not to follow the law."
The state associations are members of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which writes the rules for high school sports adopted by most states.
The state associations, funded by ticket sales and broadcast agreements, have governing boards made up largely of principals and athletic directors chosen by the member schools. NFHS spokesman Bruce Howard said that in the past decade, more legislatures have placed a state education official on these boards, or given the Board of Education some control over the associations.
Both private and public schools voluntarily join state associations and operate under their rules, although in a handful of states, private schools have their own organization.
Howard said the first time a state legislature made headlines by getting involved in the business of high school athletics was in 1984, when Texas passed its "no pass, no play" law requiring student-athletes to receive a grade of 70 percent or better in all courses to play. The law is still in effect, although the period of ineligibility was cut from six weeks to three.
"I think initially our states were taken aback" by legislatures' entry into the associations' business, Howard said. "The legislature, they pass the rule, but to carry it out impacts the state association."
A variety of school sports issues have attracted legislative action. This year, Maryland enacted a law requiring schools to come up with a plan to give disabled students equal access to high school sports facilities or teams in three years. And the "no pass, no play" debate was reignited this year when a Louisiana lawmaker tried unsuccessfully to raise the minimum grade point average for athletic participation from 1.5 to 2.0.
Lawmakers also have weighed in on the seemingly trivial. Last year, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) signed a bill to limit ticket prices for high school playoff games, a backlash stirred by the 2004 season, when some high schools doubled the price of postseason tickets to a whopping $7.
This year, Kansas legislators considered a bill recommending that high school state football championship games be played at the University of Kansas or Kansas State University. Sponsors said high school athletes should have the chance to play in the state's biggest stadiums.
But Rick Bowden, assistant executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association , said the bill didn't take into account potential scheduling conflicts with the colleges, or the fact that high schools prefer the atmosphere of 7,000 fans in a 9,000-seat stadium instead of 7,000 fans in a 50,000-seat stadium.
"I don't think the Legislature has the time, the background and understanding of all the nuances of some ideas out there to do an effective job in writing rules for schools that can govern themselves," said Bowden, a former legislator himself. The bill failed in the House.
Another area where legislators inject themselves is the battle between private and public school teams. Last year, the Texas Senate passed a bill to allow private school teams, which have their own league, to play in the public school league run by the University Interscholastic League .
The bill would have benefited Cornerstone Christian Schools , which had filed a lawsuit claiming it was banned from the public school league because of religious discrimination.
Cornerstone was cut out of the private league after the 2005-06 school year, when the league disciplined the school because 11 basketball players had received improper inducements, with players paying an unusually low amount for room and board. Ten years ago, the league also cited Cornerstone for fielding a winning basketball team made up entirely of international players, including current NBA player Eduardo Najera.
The Cornerstone bill failed in the Texas House, and earlier this month, a federal judge rejected the school's lawsuit.
Most bills of this ilk let lawmakers vent their frustration, but die before reaching the statute books.
This year, the Nebraska Legislature's education committee heard testimony on a bill to overturn the Nebraska School Activities Association's rule that bans students from playing a sport for both a private club team and a high school team in the same season.
To committee chairman Ron Raikes, a larger debate was whether it was the Legislature's business to get involved at all. He worried about the precedent.
"I did not think it was a good idea for someone, when they're unhappy with how much playing time their child is getting and the like, that they should feel that they could go to the Legislature to settle that sort of issue," Raikes said. His committee took no further action on the bill.