Bills Would End S.C. High School League’s Authority

February 12, 2013

Investigative Reports

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FootballIf some state lawmakers have their way, the South Carolina High School League would be benched for life.

A House Education and Public Works subcommittee last week approved an amended bill that would gut the jurisdiction of the nearly 100-year-old organization. The bill (H. 3229), sponsored by Reps. Joe Daning, R-Berkeley, and Bill Crosby, R-Charleston, would create a “Division of Interscholastic Athletics” within the S.C. Department of Education, which would assume the functions and authority of the High School League.

The legislation comes on the heels of several controversial decisions made by the league, particularly a ruling in which the organization disqualified the Goose Creek High School football team from the playoffs for allowing what the league described as an ineligible student, who did not play in any games, to join the team.

The lead quote on the High School League’s homepage reads, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules…”

But several lawmakers contend that the organization has been far too strict in enforcing its rules – to the detriment of student athletes.

“We’ve been addressing High School League issues for about two years now,” said Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Beaufort and a House Education subcommittee member, when contacted Monday by The Nerve. “We decided to send a message: Enough is enough.”

During last’s week subcommittee hearing, Patrick proposed amending the ultimately approved version of the legislation to outline the duties of an advisory committee and an appellate body with the creation of the Education Department division. Critics say there is no separate appellate process or oversight of the High School League.

“They’re (the league) getting government funds. Their fees are paid with state taxpayer dollars – (as well as) their incomes, their pension, their health care,” said Patrick. “I think it’s silly that they aren’t held accountable.”

The High School League is comprised of 207 public and private high schools and close to 200 middle schools. Its executive committee includes representatives from the state superintendents, principals, school boards, coaches and athletic administrators associations, and the Department of Education.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, has proposed a bill (S. 128) similar to the House legislation; his bill, which was prefiled in December, is currently with the Senate Education Committee. Contacted last week by The Nerve, Campsen shared many of Patrick’s concerns.

“The High School League is autonomous,” Campsen said, explaining that the League is a nonprofit, unelected entity. “There’s no accountability, and they can’t be removed by the ballot box. The General Assembly would have the opportunity (with his bill) to approve the rules and make them appealable because that’s missing right now.”

Campsen, an attorney, contended that the High School League offers no due process to those accused of breaking its rules, and has only one penalty for all offenses: the “death penalty,” which prohibits a team from participating in playoffs.

“There is no proportional penalty to offense,” he said. “Some of these kids were on that team for four years,” he said, referring to the Goose Creek High School incident.”

Besides Campsen, Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley and a member of the Senate Education Committee, also has introduced a bill (S. 161) that would transfer the High School League’s authority to the proposed Education Department division. His bill was referred to the Education Committee.

The Senate and House bills, however, are not universally supported.

High School League Vice President Marion Waters, a principal at Greer High School, told The Nerve that he reflected on the House Education subcommittee’s decision last week on the ride home.

“They may be irritated that our processes work slowly,” he said. “I think there may be some truth there. What hasn’t been discussed is there are 33 appeals, and 25 of those 33 have been approved. I think it’s a process that works.”

Several opponents of the House bill spoke at last week’s hearing, including Waters and Rep. Mike Anthony, D-Union and a retired coach.

Anthony warned the subcommittee to “not to throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Myles Wilson, a former Spartanburg High School athletic director who serves on the board of the South Carolina Athletic Administrators Association, protested on similar grounds.

“We know we’re not perfect,” he conceded, “But we can make the changes. The schools can make the changes to make a better organization.”

Anthony suggested that the General Assembly give the High School League at least until March, when it will hold its legislative assembly meeting in Charleston, to make changes. Waters noted there are 13 amendments to the league’s constitution up for consideration.

“Does the South Carolina General Assembly not trust us to do what is right by our students?” Waters asked the subcommittee.

The answer for now seems to be no.

“My biggest concern,” Patrick told The Nerve, “is they’re not focused on the individual circumstances of the child. What I see is a boiler-plate response to eligibility and whatever other problems come before them.”

“I was a state champion in high school,” Campsen told The Nerve. “I believe athletics is a microcosm of life. Teamwork, discipline, persistence count more than talent. I want kids to experience that.”

Given lawmakers’ concerns, the High School League might need a Hail Mary pass to survive.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.