NCHSAA commissioner fears ‘wild, wild West’ in high school sports under new state law

NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker photographed in her office in Chapel Hill. (Langston Wertz Jr./

The phrase “wild, wild West” kept coming up Tuesday, when North Carolina High School Athletic Association commissioner Que Tucker talked about the impact of legislation that took effect a day earlier.

“I would like to think our membership won’t allow this to become the wild, wild West,” Tucker said in a news conference, talking about legislation that went into effect Monday and strips away power from the NCHSAA.

Her image of the wild, wild West:

More brawls breaking out during sports events, if student-athletes believe enforcement of rules prohibiting fights is weakened.

A repeat of last season’s basketball regional finals, when hundreds of fans were shut out of overcrowded gymnasiums.

A big increase in appeals of any rulings against student-athletes or teams – an increase that could clog the system.

A lack of statewide regulations, when it comes to starting and ending dates for sports seasons, and the number of games and matches that teams can play.

“I worry about the future,” Tucker said.

Senate Bill 452, adopted by the General Assembly more than a week ago, takes power from the NCHSAA and hands it to the State Superintendent of Schools office.

The bill caps a years-long battle between the NCHSAA and some state legislators, mostly Republicans, about how high school athletics should be governed in the state.

The battle ranged from specific cases — a ruling that kept Anson County out of the 2019 football playoffs due to players’ involvement in a fight — to more generalized issues — the NCHSAA’s decision to postpone athletic seasons in 2020-21 due to COVID-19.

For the most part, student-athletes and fans haven’t been affected by the feud.

Impacts on players, fans

Tucker said Tuesday that could change — if it hasn’t already.

She said she believes the number of fights and ejections during games and matches has increased this season.

“I don’t have specific numbers, because we’ve been busy with other things,” she said, alluding to Senate Bill 452. “But I have a distinct feeling that the number of incidents has increased.”

The new legislation allows parents and student-athletes to appeal any time the NCHSAA suspends players or teams, or levies financial penalties. It’s unclear exactly who will decide on appeals, under the new law.

But it appears that the legislation will have the state superintendent handle those decisions.

“They’ve created an avenue where any student or parent who doesn’t like a ruling can appeal,” she said of state legislators.

Tucker’s concern on this: That student-athletes might take advantage of weaker enforcement.

“Is that why it seems like we’re having more fights and ejections?” she asked. “I don’t know. But it’s a concern.”

Tucker also was asked how the new legislation might affect rulings such as the one issued by the NCHSAA on Monday, which stripped New Bern High of the 4A football state championship it won last year. Craven County Schools officials informed the NCHSAA on Monday that several academically ineligible players were a part of New Bern’s team last fall.

“We can’t talk about that case specifically,” Tucker said.

But what about the general topic?

“In future cases, will we have someone who is a legislator step forward and say we have gone too far?” Tucker asked. “That would be a litmus test.”

“I would like to hold out hope,” she added.

Overcrowded tournaments?

Tucker said there are indications that the new law could prevent placing state playoff events in college or public arenas. Limited seating capacities cost fans a chance to see regional basketball championships last March at Providence High and multiple locations in the eastern part of the state.

And, she said, some state championships might end up being returned to school sites. Currently, those events are held at universities or larger public facilities.

The start and end dates of seasons, along with the number of matches and games that teams are allowed to play, also is threatened by the new law, Tucker said.

“Someone has to make rules,” she said. “We (the NCHSAA) sets the rules for eligibility, the dates to start and end seasons, and the number of games and scrimmages. If we go away, who does that?”

Will the NCHSAA go away?

“We believe that during the current school year, we are the administering association,” Tucker said. But, she added, Senate Bill 452 requires that some sort of new arrangement is reached before next July 1.

“We’ll have to see what happens then,” she said.

Either way, Tucker said she sees no way back to the old system.

“When you squeeze out toothpaste, it’s hard to get it back in the tube,” she said. “Last Thursday night, the toothpaste was squeezed out.”

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle