What is the future of high school athletics in North Carolina? According to a local athletic director, it is murky at best.
With the passage of Senate Bill 636 — which still sits in the House — the General Assembly would significantly weaken the authority of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association even further.
On May 3, just hours after the NCHSAA board of directors approved a proposal that would have approved Name Image and Likeness, or NIL, benefits, Republicans in the state Senate voted to quash the measure.
Twenty-seven states have offered NIL benefits to high-school athletes. North Carolina would have been added to the list.
Under the NCHSAA’s measure, student athletes are able to earn money for activities such as autograph signings, appearances and sponsorships, a setup similar to what’s in place for college athletes.
In a party-line 30-20 vote, the Senate passed bill 636. Under the legislation, only the State Board of Education would be allowed to draft rules governing NIL agreements.
“If SB 636 passes, and I don’t see how it wouldn’t pass, I see [NIL] as a dead issue,” New Hanover County Schools Athletic Director Kelly Lewis said. “They want to remove students from getting benefits from their name, image and likeness.”
Lewis added lawmakers are making a bad decision and setting a dangerous precedent. The NCHSAA has been around for 100 years.
“I do not think it’s fair the General Assembly is trying to govern high school athletics in the state,” he said. “I’ve seen something like this in Delaware, but I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else before.”
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court set the stage for NIL when it ruled unanimously in Alston v. National Collegiate Athletic Association two years ago, athletes at the collegiate level have taken full advantage of their newfound privileges.
Statewide, University of North Carolina power forward Armando Bacot and Duke guard Jeremy Roach each signed NIL deals with BOA Nutrition, a North Carolina-based company that specializes in athletic performance products, according to the News & Observer.
Terms were not disclosed.
However, Lewis said NIL would have a minimal impact on high school students, locally or statewide.
“We only have a small percentage who would be offered NIL,” he said.
In addition to eliminating NIL deals, Senate Bill 636 would force the NCHSAA to reduce fees for its 400-plus member schools, take less money from state tournament games and agree to annual audits from the State Board of Education and General Assembly. The legislation also prevents the organization from providing scholarships for students and schools, and bans it from soliciting grant funding or sponsorships from third parties.
Essentially, it gives the state more authority.
The State Board of Education currently has a four-year memorandum of understanding with the NCHSAA to operate athletics. It was included in Senate legislation as an update to House Bill 91. Signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2021, it took effect last July 1.
However, an amendment was passed within Senate Bill 636 that terminates the MOU with six months’ notice. It didn’t sit well with NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker during the May committee meeting.
“We signed that in good faith, believing that we had four years that we would be working in concert with the North Carolina State Board of Education, and that we would be reporting to the General Assembly as dictated by the bill,” Tucker said to the committee. “We’re not even at a year.”
Primary co-sponsor Vickie Sawyer (R-Iredell) said Senate Bill 636 pushes the original legislation even further.
“That’s a piece that was really missed, and that we also put some caps around — you know, how much money that [the NCHSAA] have before they can collect,” Sawyer said.
As of the end of the 2020 fiscal year, the NCHSAA was worth $40.3 million. According to association data, 46% of its revenue comes from program services, such as ticket sales from playoffs and state championships, registration fees for officials, membership dues and other areas.
This would be slashed under the new legislation.
Thirty-seven percent of current revenue comes from third-party contributions and other grants, of which 3.34% comes from a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services. The remaining 17% is from investment income.
Senate Bill 636 eliminates this revenue.
“I understand this is a very loved and respected organization, and I appreciate that they do a good job of making the trains run on time,” Sawyer said. “It’s just that I feel like they have made so much money that it’s time to start getting back to the student athlete.”
Tucker also said the General Assembly never reached out to her, nor any other member of the NCHSAA with any concerns. The General Assembly informed no one of any improprieties, even though the body was preparing to pass legislation that would weaken the NCHSAA’s power.
“We have a board of directors who represent all parts of the state,” Tucker said at the meeting. “We were never called, we never received an email. Our membership, which is made up of 432 schools, approved amendments so that we could be in compliance with the memorandum of understanding.”
Senate Bill 636 has to be voted on by the House still. Should Cooper veto it, the Republican supermajority still has the power to override and turn it into law.
Lewis said lawmakers will not stop at the current legislation until they have completely usurped power from the NCHSAA, leading to an uncertain future for high school athletics in North Carolina.
“With the path we’re on, they’ll just keep creating bills until they take all of the power from the athletic association,” he said. “The leadership will likely then just look elsewhere , because they don’t want to be under the control of the General Assembly. I honestly don’t know where we’ll be in five years.”
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