The High School Sports Power Grab

January 22, 2024


  • Republican leaders in the state legislature completely overhauled high school sports in North Carolina
  • Partisan political leaders will now wield full control over high school sports down to the school level
  • Governance changes arose from a single lawmaker’s objection to a high school football game


The North Carolina High School Athletics Association has governed high school athletics in our state since 1913. The nonprofit organization is the statewide high school equivalent of the NCAA: setting competition rules, eligibility requirements, organizing playoff schedules, and much more. It’s a difficult job. The organization must manage over 400 schools across 100 counties of vastly different sizes, resources, and structures – not to mention, different sports. This is one of many reasons it’s headed by a board of directors elected directly by its 400 member schools. In the words of the Charlotte Observer’s Langston Wertz Jr., “That’s school people policing school people”. 

And in September, the NCGA threw that 100-year history of self-governance into a trash can. Then set the trash can on fire. 

What happened

During an early morning session in September, Republicans in the State House added about 13 pages to the end of a bill making changes to insurance law. The bill then passed the House and Senate later that morning and became law after Gov. Cooper chose to not veto it, likely to avoid an inevitable override vote. Those 13 pages do the following:

  • it requires the NCHSAA to comply with rules set by the State Board of Education;
  • it set up an independent appeals process under the oversight of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (a statewide elected position);
  • gives the State Board of Education the authority to override any decision made by the NCHSAA board of Directors, and;
  • makes changes to the structure of the Board’s structure. 

Finally, if the NCHSAA can’t reach a “memorandum of understanding” with its constituent school superintendents, the State Superintendent’s office assumes full control of high school sports. 

In other words, it’s a full-on power grab designed to transfer control of high school sports statewide away from schools themselves and place it into the hands of elected, partisan political actors. It was passed early in the morning, after no debate or even a hearing, after being inserted into a completely unrelated bill 15 minutes before the session began. And as Wertz explained, no one in North Carolina high school sports wanted these changes in the first place.

How did we get here?

On a macro level, this is another manifestation of the GOP’s partisan weaponization of high school sports, arrogating to the state broader authority to enforce bans on transgender students participating in the gender they identify as passed earlier this year. Sports, like schools in general, have become a prime target of the Right’s broader culture war. It’s the exact same playbook the General Assembly has done at the college level stacking the UNC System Board of Governors with lieutnenats of Senate Leader Phil Berger and, most recently, the appointment of Pat McCrory’s budget director Lee Roberts as UNC Chapel-Hill’s interim Chancellor after the Republican-led Board of Trustees essentially forced out Chancellor Kevin Guskawiez by making his job a living nightmare of political interference.

But unlike those other examples, the partisan coup in high school athletics really came down to a single GOP senator throwing a fit. 

In 2019, the Anson High School football team was disqualified from the state playoffs because 6 players had been ejected due to a fight during a game earlier that season. NCHSAA rules state that any school with 3 or more students ejected during a game is ineligible for the playoffs. Anson County’s State Senator, Republican Tom McInnis, didn’t like that penalty. Though the school itself didd not appeal the decision, McInnis personally asked the NCHSAA to overturn the ejections and allow Anson to play in the playoffs. After the NCHSAA’s leadership said no, Mcinnis began to investigate the organization, which the NCHSAA commissioner said wouldn’t have happened had the organization given in to his demands. 

To be clear: a state senator chose to use the full power of the state government to tear down a 100-year-old institution because it wouldn’t obey his order. McInnis himself said that his investigations and legislation were designed to bring “oversight and accountability and transparency,” which is an odd way to describe a bill drafted in secret with no public comment.

Yet in another way, no one is surprised. This is all standard practice for the North Carolina General Assembly at this point. The new legislation doesn’t take effect until the 2024-2025 school year, and the current memorandum of understanding between the State and the NCHSAA is binding for another 3 years. Mcinnis and the GOP have made their position clear: Play ball… or else.

Samad Rangoonwala is an Opinion writer for the Daily Tarheel based in Carrboro.

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