by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
When a private organization is carrying out a government function and effectively managing government bodies, should that organization be subject to open meeting requirements?
In the case of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA), the emerging answer is “yes.” A bill working through the General Assembly would require the organization to follow the state’s open meetings law. That is a welcome development.
The NCHSAA is a private organization that seeks to “provide governance and leadership for interscholastic athletic programs.” It was formed in 1912 to standardize rules for high school athletics. It is currently a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation.
In over a century, the NCHSAA has acquired great power over how high school athletics are conducted in North Carolina, setting rules that public schools must follow. It did so largely outside of public view. It also amassed $41 million in assets, most of which came from dues from public high schools. The arrangement essentially makes it a taxpayer-funded organization. By comparison, the Florida High School Athletics Association has $6 million in assets while serving a much more populous state.
Despite NCHSAA’s role and funding, its decision-making has largely been shielded from public view.
Over the past several years, several incidents raised public and legislative concerns over NCHSAA’s governance, bringing greater scrutiny to the organization. They include confusion over the start of the 2020 football season and the organization’s transgender athletes policy.
The proximate cause of legislators’ interest in the NCHSAA was its allegedly heavy-handed treatment of the Anson High School football team following a 2019 scuffle during a game with Richmond High School. The organization took actions that prevented the team from participating in that year’s playoffs. That brought the NCHSAA’s decision-making process to the attention of Sen. Tom McInnis, whose district at the time included Anson County:
I think [the NCHSAA’s decision about the Anson High School football team] was subjective. I think they did it just because they could. Anson County is a small, rural school district … those kids don’t have a voice ….
As it is right now, there’s no oversight, and I think that oversight and accountability and transparency has to be paramount, and as I see everything right now, we don’t have that.
The first step toward reform was House Bill 91, “Accountability and Fair Play in Athletics,” passed by the General Assembly in 2021. The bill required the NCHSAA to enter a “memorandum of understanding” with the State Board of Education that established rules for how it governed high school sports, created an independent appeals board for high schools punished for NCHSAA infractions, and subjected the organization to audits by the State Auditor. The NCHSAA entered the required agreement with the State Board in March 2022.
The next step in opening the NCHSAA to public scrutiny would be Senate Bill 52, “Open Meetings/Administering Organizations,” sponsored by Sens. McInnis (R–Cumberland, Moore), Todd Johnson (R–Cabarrus, Union), and Vickie Sawyer (R–Iredell, Mecklenburg). The bill would expand the definition of “public body” to include “administering organizations.”
What is an “administering organization?”
The answer to that is found in 115C-407.50(1) of the North Carolina General Statutes:
A nonprofit organization that has entered into and is in compliance with a memorandum of understanding with the State Board of Education to administer and enforce the adopted rules and requirements of this Article for interscholastic athletic activities at the high school level.
In other words, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
As a public body, the NCHSAA would be subject to North Carolina’s open meetings law, which “gives the general public a right to attend official meetings of public bodies.” If it did not comply, it would be subject to lawsuits.
The bill would be a welcome step toward providing transparency to a $41 million quasi-governmental organization that wields great power over North Carolina high school student-athletes. That transparency is long overdue.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has already favorably reported the bill, setting up an eventual vote on the Senate floor. If the Senate approves the bill, it will move to the House, and if the House follows suit it will head to Gov. Cooper’s desk.