NC Legislative Building

The NC Legislative Building in Raleigh. The NC Senate and House in bipartisan measure passed House Bill 91 last week which will affect the orchestration of high school athletics moving forward.

RALEIGH — House Bill 91, whose movement and development was stagnated following a quick initial movement through the NC Senate this summer, was revised and has passed by overwhelming majorities in both the state house and state senate on Thursday, Nov. 18, with Governor Roy Cooper signing the bill into law on Tuesday, Nov. 23.

Previously, The AJT reported on the proposed HB91 and the efforts by the state legislature to rein in the authority of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association by seeking to remove most authority from the nonprofit organization that serves interscholastic high school athletics in the state. The original revision of the bill failed to advance to a full vote in the NC House, and representatives from state government and the NCHSAA met to iron out a compromise plan that would satisfy all stakeholders.

The bill, which quickly came out of a conference committee on Tuesday, Nov. 16, passed by a 41-7 vote in the Senate, with a 76-38 vote in the House.

The legislation as it is currently drafted alters how the NCHSAA’s partnership with the state legislature and schools will exist, but it stops short of disbanding the association and completely stripping it of authoritative power, which was a sticking point for the association and many of its schools who did not support the earlier form of the bill.

HB91 in its current form will empower the State Board of Education to determine rules for interscholastic athletics in a number of areas, including setting guidelines for eligibility, gameplay, health and safety, administration, fees, and appeals, among other areas. Once those rules are established, the state BOE may delegate the day-to-day operations of high school athletics with one or more nonprofit organizations, such as the NCHSAA, via a Memorandum of Understanding, with a required renewal of the memorandum/contract within a maximum renewal period of every four years.

Despite contentions that the bill was not needed, the NCHSAA stated that it would not oppose the revised version of HB91 if it passed through both legislative houses.

“Since the bill was introduced, and through multiple rounds of revisions to the bill, the Board of Directors and staff of the NCHSAA have worked with members of the General Assembly and the State Board of Education to express our concerns about the legislative impact House Bill 91 would have on our member schools’ student-athletes. Although we continued to believe that legislation was unnecessary, we advocated for changes to the legislation that would best serve the needs of student-athletes. As of today (Nov. 16), House Bill 91 has been revised to reflect these changes,” NCHSAA Board fo Directors President and Hendersonville High School Principal Bobby Wilkins said in a prepared statement.

Additionally included in the bill, the state auditor will have authority to lend oversight to any nonprofit that partners with the state, and will have the authority to abolish any rules adopted by the said nonprofit(s) by simple majority vote. The bill also shifts responsibility of providing catastrophic insurance to the Commissioner of Insurance, with premiums paid by the member schools.

Although the bill quells some concerns between parties regarding operation of high school athletics in North Carolina, several questions facing prep sports remain unclear. The bill fails to address the status of nontraditional/parochial schools and their role in the public schools athletics arena, as there is no mention of nontraditional schools or if the new organization operating high school athletics is exclusive to public schools.

As well, the bill offers no mention regarding a pair of hotly contested matters that played a significant role in the increased scrutiny by some in the General Assembly, the endowment fund of the NCHSAA, and how much wealth a nonprofit can accumulate. This issue was a rallying cry for proponents of the earliest revision of HB91, with lawmakers contending that the association possessed more the $40 million in assets, which raised red flags and required oversight and explanation by the state.

“The bottom line is that it still sets up the high school athletic association to remain in existence, with some sort of limited oversight. It’s pretty clear to me that the NCHSAA and the DPI (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction) are going to be the main players in the game,” Avery High School Athletic Director Jay Smith said. “That is key. I personally don’t think that we will see a whole lot of change. There’s emphasis on making sure that schools receive money back and that there aren’t any fines and those type things, and that may change. It seems the bill has been focused on the administering organization not accumulating funds.”

Other issues left unaddressed by the legislation include the implementation of its demerit system for rules violations, as no language was drafted regarding fines as a penalty, which was a criticism of the NCHSAA by state officials, who felt it unfair and criticized the handling of monetary fines to state public high schools by the NCHSAA. No restrictions were laid out in the language of HB91 of corporate sponsors, while names of preferred vendors were not listed nor language present addressing video and audio rights of high school games. The NCHSAA traditionally has partnered with offering exclusivity in previous years to partners such as Time Warner Cable for broadcasting rights for state championships, but the status of such agreements and whether schools could individually partner with such vendors remains unclear.

“Personally I think they dove into this issue regarding the money issue with endowment, but when it came down to it, I don’t think the dollar figures mentioned was what people said. The big number thrown out included the building and all sorts of assets that the association couldn’t touch which were dedicated funds for specific needs at specific schools, and it wasn’t tangible money,” Smith explained. “My opinion is there is some common sense that came into play during this process, and it became clear that it wasn’t like the state association was sitting on a large pile of money. Their budget is large, but there are a lot of schools. I think that schools will get some money back more consistently. I really don’t see the bill as it is changing much, other than someone from DPI conducting an audit of the association, much like they do on the high school. Probably there will be board members appointed to that board that are from DPI, though I don’t think the legislature and those who have been part of the debate will necessarily be on that board. DPI and the high school athletic association will do their thing and, unlike the past, it will be more formal and in writing rather than a gentlemen’s agreement.”

The full text of HB91 is available by clicking to https://www.ncleg.gov/Sessions/2021/Bills/House/PDF/H91v8.pdf.

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