COLUMBIA — The South Carolina High School League could decide its own fate this weekend at its annual conference when members vote on whether to establish a more open appeals process and punishment system, legislators said Wednesday.
The warning came as a Senate panel took testimony on a bill that would eliminate the independent, dues-paying organization that governs middle and high school sports. The measure transfers the league’s responsibilities to the state Education Department, under an athletic commissioner appointed by the state superintendent.
The 99-year-old league is made up of more than 200 member schools that set their competition rules. Under the bill, rules would instead be approved by the Legislature and appeals would go before the Administrative Law Court.
“Right now, they’re operated by an entity that’s unaccountable to elected officials,” said Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, the bill’s main Senate sponsor.
Legislators have long complained about the league and their inability to have any say over decisions involving constituents. But league decisions that knocked defending state football champions Goose Creek out of the playoffs last November prompted bills to get rid of it.
“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Rep. Joe Daning, R-Goose Creek, the bill’s main House sponsor. “Almost every year you hear something about the league — that we need to do something — but that was the end of it.”
The league’s executive committee twice ruled Goose Creek High School, which is actually outside Daning’s district, had to forfeit all 10 games in which an ineligible player dressed to play. The second decision followed a circuit court judge ordering the league to reconsider.
Goose Creek coach Chuck Reedy testified he alerted the league, amid the playoffs, to a possible mistake in allowing a special education student to play in five games when the team was ahead by at least 41 points.
“This was a young man who had no impact whatsoever in terms of advantage of any type. We assumed we’d be treated fairly, and we were given the death penalty,” Reedy said. “I begged them for mercy. I said, ‘Fire me. Penalize me. Do anything you want to do to me, but do not penalize these young men.’ ... And we got a deaf ear.”
League director Jerome Singleton called the “death penalty” term a mischaracterization, saying the lowest-level penalty was applied according to the rules over ineligible players in a fifth year of high school.
Senators said they’re watching to see how schools’ representatives vote on proposals that provide an appeals process and tiered set of punishments. The league’s annual conference is Saturday in Charleston.
Some senators wanted to advance the bill to send a message. But the panel’s chairman, Sen. Wes Hayes, said that’s not necessary.
“If they don’t, they give us the message that somebody’s not listening,” said Hayes, R-Rock Hill.
Daning said he’d seriously consider any changes the league makes before proceeding with his bill. Floor debate in the House has been postponed.
But Campsen urged senators to act regardless.
“I’d say no matter what happens on Saturday, you need an independent body that doesn’t import their agendas into these decisions, that’s not worrying about who’s going to win the next state championships,” he said.
Rep. Michael Anthony, a former football coach and athletic director, said he would plead with his former colleagues in Charleston to adopt some changes or risk the Legislature forcing more drastic ones.
“This is a hard-headed group of guys ... but I don’t want to see us throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Anthony, D-Union. “It is a crying shame when adults make mistakes that cause kids to have a problem.”
Superintendent Mick Zais is also awaiting this weekend’s votes to determine whether he’ll remain neutral.
If the league adopts a proposal to put all of the league’s private schools, public charter and magnet schools into a separate division for competition, Zais would actively advocate for the league’s demise, his spokesman Jay Ragley said.
The bulk of magnet and charter schools with athletic teams are in Greenville and Charleston counties, and making them travel long distances to play each other is unfair, Ragley said.
Another “deal-breaker” for Zais has already been pulled from consideration. It would have made the league’s four private school members ineligible for playoffs.