Head of SC high school league talks about its role and future

03/25/2013 9:00 PM

03/26/2013 9:33 AM

As the Commissioner of the South Carolina High School League, Jerome Singleton is the public face of an organization that usually does not get much face time.

Most often associated with determining player eligibility and setting penalties for team rules violations, Singleton is hoping to steer the SCHSL into a more positive light.

The SCHSL, which represents and regulates competition among more than 200 high schools in the state, has come under scrutiny by the state legislature after some dissent over recent decisions, most directly the suspension of Goose Creek’s undefeated football team from the 2012 playoffs.

The S.C. House last week approved an amended measure allowing the SCHSL to continue overseeing middle and high school sports.

The measure initially would have eliminated the SCHSL and transferred its duties to the state Education Department, under an athletic commissioner appointed by the state superintendent.

Singleton is the man charged with steering the organization’s course.

He talked to The State about what’s next.

Q: The state legislators considered taking over responsibility for the governance of high school sports. Do you see a middle ground?

A: We’ve got to figure out how we can bridge gaps. People get upset about it, but the legislators are responding to their constituents, and I understand that’s an awesome job that they have to do. We understand that. We’d like to find ways to work with them to satisfy those constituents, because they are the same ones that we have. We are not in opposition; we’ve just got to figure out the best way to accomplish that.

Q: Do you think the SCHSL can maintain the public interest as a private organization?

A: I think it’s doable. I think we can stay separate and still operate in the public interest, because the group that governs this is totally public employees – they’re teachers, administrators and coaches, and they see the connection. That thing that allows us to be helpful to them in being a private entity is that we can offer these same services at no cost to the taxpayers, in that we are self-sufficient as far as financing with the exception of membership dues, that equates to a little less than 10 percent of our budget. So we can provide the same service, keep that public interest at heart, without becoming a public entity. We are a resource, a big resource, to the state’s Department of Education.

Q: You have been clear that you see your job as to interpret the League’s Constitution and apply it as written, which can be difficult when it comes to things like eligibility, hardships, violations and sanctions. How do you separate your personal opinions from the role of upholding the written rules?

A: I think everybody, we were in the school system, they all probably wish they didn’t have to make the decisions that they make as far as sanctioning and the fines and the like. That bothers me tremendously. But at the same time, the membership took the time to put it in writing, and they all agreed to it, that this is the way we wanted to go. I think the great thing is that they make these rules while there are no names and faces attached. We deal with the what-ifs, so that when this situation presents itself, we can apply it as written. Do I feel differently sometimes? Wish I could do it differently? I wish I never have to put anybody on probation. I wish I never have to suspend a kid. But I can’t do that.

Q: What is it like to watch the Executive Committee in action when athletes and teams come in for appeals, once the decision is out of your hands?

A: It becomes challenging. I’m sitting there wishing that there was another way to do it, as opposed to the sanction that is involved. There is a range of sanctions but I try to always exercise the lowest level possible, and still be able to maintain the integrity of the constitution and the league but also protecting those other kids that are doing it by the rules. The greatest thing about the SCHSL is that group is made up of their peers, principals, superintendents, athletics directors, coaches. That group has possibly a better connection than I do. So when that group decides to set (the constitution) aside, I’m not upset by that, because they’ve got a better feel for that. But if they leave it in place, I’m not upset by that either. Because they understand that we have 116,000 kids competing every year. So how do you say yes to them, and no to everybody else? How do you allow them to go in violation, but everybody else better not violate because these are the sanctions that are in place?

Q: This often puts you in an unpopular position though. Why is it worth it?

A: It goes back to why we have this League in the first place, what is our mission, what are we trying to accomplish? It’s about the lessons that can be learned, so we have to have that. I realize that I am the face of the League and a lot of times, there is some criticism that is going to take place, and I understand that. You’ve got to do the right thing even when it’s not popular because it’s in the best interests of all kids, and I’m comfortable with that. If it’s going to help the education of those kids, we have to do what’s right even if it’s not popular.

Q: How would you explain the functions of the SCHSL in making the state’s high school sports successful?

A: I don’t take this position of being commissioner lightly at all. There has been a disconnect in communication, between the general public and the League and I take full blame for that. We have not moved as fast as far as making the public aware of who we are and what we do and the great things that we bring forward. There’s so much that we have to promote – scholastics, citizenship, sportsmanship, leadership. We promote safety through our workshops. Those things are out there and a lot of people are not aware of that, but it takes all those pieces to come together to make what we have work. We are going to try, and I’ve made the promise to our member schools, that we are going to try to be more service available to them, in ways other than being regulatory to them. “Oh, here we go. You messed up. Here’s a fine, here’s a forfeiture.” No. We’ve got to be much more than that.

Q: How has your job differed from what you expected?

A: It gets a little more challenging trying to be in front of changes because things happen so quickly now, and social media has changed the landscape of all that.

Q: How has your role changed?

A: As I initially came in, I wanted to serve more as a facilitator to our member schools, giving them all the information that are necessary to know where we need to move next. But given all the work that is required of our administrators and our coaches and our athletic directors, I have taken more of a leadership role of pointing them in the direction of where we need to go. As opposed to saying to them, “Well, what’s the answer?’ I’m saying, ‘Here’s a viable answer.’ ”

Q: What is the most important change that you would like to see made in the rules?

A: Our educational system is becoming more choice-oriented and society is becoming more transient. Our rules don’t match what we’re trying to do educationally. We need to match our athletic opportunities along with those academic opportunities. Right now we’re not there. We’re forcing them to make a choice. You can go to this school and enhance your educational opportunity but you can’t play sports for a year. We need to marry the two.

Q: What do you hope the SCHSL will become in the next five years?

A: I don’t want it to become something that doesn’t resemble what it was originally. I think it needs to be a reflection of the good things that we intended. If you talk to the previous directors, they will tell you that the job I have now is not the job they had then. We need to continue to be a gatekeeper, for safety and for safe play and we need to maintain a level-playing field for everybody that’s involved. We need to hold those two things in place.

Q: What do you point to as signs of the SCHSL’s success?

A: I think the more kids that we can encourage to get involved, that’s success. I think it’s kind of an intangible. If we can get more kids involved, by offering more levels of sports involved, more lessons being taught outside of the X’s and O’s, I think that points to success for us.

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