RALEIGH — Putting the student component of student-athlete uppermost in mind, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Board of Directors made several decisions during its winter meeting on Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 2 and Dec. 3.

Both board president Jerry Simmons, principal at New Bern High School, and NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker answered a number of questions from almost three dozen media representatives in Thursday afternoon’s press conference about decisions regarding realignment, elimination of subdivisions, a planned $4 million subsidy to be shared by qualifying member schools, and the wisdom of going forward with high risk sports at a time when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are reportedly on the rise, statewide. 

Stressing the educational mission is not surprising for a board comprised of principals, teachers and athletic directors, nor is a belief that offering competitive sports opportunities to young people is important for many students’ well-rounded growth. For many, Simmons said, sports participation is a motivating factor for a student to even attend school and receive an education.

Thanks all around

“I want to commend the work of our student athletes, coaches and school administrators in our state for helping us return sports," Simmons said. "They have certainly served as models to our schools and our communities that these safety protocols can work."

"They provide us with optimism for our upcoming sports seasons,” Simmons said. “I also want to commend the work of our school districts and school boards across the state. They have made some fiscal decisions and their enforcement of our safety measures has allowed us to return sports and do so, obviously, with less resources.”

Simmons continued by acknowledging the NCHSAA’s partnership with Gov. Roy Cooper's office and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Simmons described the work of the NCHSAA as “bold” in the work they are doing in these challenging times. Tucker underlined that thought a short while later in saying that in her years of service she could not recall a time when an NCHSAA board has been called upon to do so much.

“Our board of directors represent the regions across our state very well,” Simmons said. “Their ability to not only focus on the now — and much of our ‘now’ of course is COVID-19 related — but they are also able to give their attention to forecasted needs that we will have beyond just COVID-19.”

With the addition of new schools accepted during the winter board meeting, the NCHSAA is now comprised of 426 member schools.

Financial subsidy announced

Simmons also reported that the association's finances are “very healthy, even in the midst of all this." He said Tucker and her staff are great stewards of NCHSAA assets, which has permitted the organization to return more than $1.2 million to member schools last year and almost $13 million during the last 10 years.

“We have a COVID athletic program subsidy,” Simmons said, “and that will have some caps, but that is $4 million that we have been able to set aside to help us assist member schools who qualify.

Simmons added that a subcommittee of the board is working on the criteria that will define what qualifying means.

"We are excited about the opportunity to help offset some of the operating expenses of our member schools," Simmons said. "We know that many will fall short with limited gate receipts, concessions and things of that sort.”

Looking at realignment

Much of the media representatives’ focus was on the decision to eliminate subdivisions within the school classifications, especially as they relate to football. Instead of having, for example, 3AA and 4AA, the classifications have been simplified to 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A. Each class level will still have 64 teams qualifying for the state playoffs.

When it came to the reason for eliminating the subdivisions, Tucker explained the boards’ and the NCHSAA staff’s deliberations that began two years ago and the thought that they could use criteria other than the size of enrollment to determine a school’s classification.

“Are there some other factors we can use,” Tucker asked. “If there are some other factors then perhaps it will eliminate the overriding need to subdivide. It simply all came together in a manner that we are able to say that we will no longer subdivide football. It puts it back on an equal footing with all of our sports. … With this realignment process we will have the opportunity to move back to the more traditional 25 percent model, introduce those factors and have our four classifications."

Simmons reported in his prepared remarks that a motion to increase the number of football classifications failed to receive a sufficient number of board votes.

The scheduled realignment of schools into the four levels of classification will be completed in March, Tucker said.

Tucker noted that “health and safety” are always going to be prominent in board discussions and that priority was evident in the decisions made by the board in these winter meetings.

The number of football games in a school’s regular season will be reduced from 11 to 10, with a stipulation that the first contest may not occur more than two days in advance of the final Friday in August. Tucker said that the board and staff had been in communication with football coaches and the coaching leadership group, receiving input as well as communicating with them the concerns with regard to student athletes’ health and safety.

“We were one of just a few states to play so many games leading to the crowning of a state champion,” Tucker stated. “It was time for us to bring that back in line not only with other folks across the country, but so that we were helping the young people who play football be as safe as we possibly could.”

The changes are to go into effect August 2021, so the modified calendars for basketball and football for the currently planned seasons starting January and February will not be affected.

Uncertain playoff venues

Tucker emphasized that many of the playoff considerations in all sports are still up in the air as they are uncertain about the availability of the traditional regional and championship venues, such as for swimming and diving.

“We are in a wait and see mode for some of those," Tucker said. "Will our colleges and universities be in a position to allow outside entities, such as high school basketball teams (and) volleyball teams, to come into their arena and play a contest? We don’t know all of those things yet. We are working with our traditional partners to see what is available. Once we solidify that, we will certainly let everybody know. Much of it is based on what this virus does and how quickly we can get it under wraps.”

Why go forward?

Given that the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are reported to be on the rise statewide, concern was expressed by media participants about the wisdom of going forward with NCHSAA plans to offer football, basketball and lacrosse — all of which have been singled out by NCDHHS as carrying a high risk for potentially spreading the virus. Simmons described the board discussions as “very rich.”

“We all understood that the discussion we were having about basketball, which starts next week would carry over into other ‘red’ sports too," Simmons said. "We are fortunate in that we have a lot of strong folks with basketball experience serving on our board and they chimed in heavily. I feel good in saying that in the end, a lot of time and research went into putting together the calendar we have out now. We worry that if we start sports too late that they would be in conflict with sports already in place. There is a fear that at that point we would have to start prioritizing which sports we are going to forge ahead with in the spring and which sports we might possibly have to take off the table."

Simmons added that he was encouraged by the protocols that are in place and the successes that they have seen in other states. He also reported that a good deal of board discussion centered on the requirement for the student athletes in basketball to compete with masks on, adding that their inclusion of an officials time out once per quarter will help alleviate concerns and not create a competitive advantage for any of the teams that might have to use their own timeouts to spell their student athletes.

Given the experiences of the NFL and college football at the highest levels, with so many players forced to remain in quarantine and miss games and even having many games canceled or postponed, Tucker was asked to characterize the board’s and staff’s level of confidence that a high school slate of regular season games and playoffs will be completed.

Tucker responded by drawing comparisons to her experience with concussion protocols on the high school level.

“I would say my level of confidence is the same level of confidence I have when I am thinking about whether our coaches are doing the right thing with concussion protocol," Tucker said. "I believe our coaches are going to do everything they can to keep their young people safe."

Tucker added that when she was a teacher, she had students from 7:30 a.m. until about 3:30 p.m. But she couldn't control what they did once they got on the bus and went home.

"But with the girls I coached, I could talk with them about expectation," Tucker said. "I could set some standards. I could establish some norms. … My relationship with my players and my relationship with their parents was such that if I said it, they pretty much thought that is what I am going to do."

She believed coaches have a similar relationship with their players.

"It gives me a rise in my level of confidence that these coaches will be able to have these young people under their wings after school, in their gyms, and be able to sit down and have some discussions about the decisions you make on the weekend," Tucker said. "These are impressionable young people. But I believe that as coaches and teachers we have the ability to affect the behavior and decision making that these young people will be dealing with once they start. … We are about education-based athletics. How can we, as a team, mitigate the spread of the virus amongst our team? Well, here is how we can do it. When you leave practice, you go home. On the weekend, you stay with mom and dad. You don’t need to be running around doing this, and this and this."

Tucker said she thinks it is critical NCHSAA that coaches deal with with the players because of the education that can be shared and the lessons that can be taught. She said she has tremendous confidence that the coaches will do the right thing and at the end of practice will say, "Wear that mask, wait six feet and wash your hands."

Tucker intimated that there would be some level of flexibility in scheduling should games need to be postponed during the regular season. “But if we get into the playoffs, you have to be able to move forward because we are not going to be able to extend the season," she said.

Emphasizing instruction

Simmons underlined the importance of “student” in the student athlete equation and offered how important it was to have sports available to many students. He said that there is an expectation that coaches be aware of their student’s needs, such as a lack of internet connectivity in this time of virtual and hybrid instruction and help them find solutions.

“We have to continue to emphasize the student part of student athlete,” Simmons said. “We unfortunately have seen a high number of failures. Much of those failures have been due to apathy. That is not OK. It is not OK for our student athletes to get fully engaged in sports but not address the instructional side. We are not saying that we don’t recognize the challenges that our students and their families are seeing right now, but we want our folks to stay focused on the importance of instruction and the importance of school."

While athletics does help motivate some students academically, Simmons said high school athletics still should get student-athletes promoted to the next grade level.

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