High School Sports

Lawmaker targets organization

The High School League has a stranglehold on South Carolina’s public schools, keeping kids out late at night on secondary roads and controlling an appeals process that puts entire athletics programs at risk, state Rep. Jim Merrill said.

Merrill, a Daniel Island Republican and former House majority leader, has decided to take a swing at the issue with a proposed bill that would dissolve the interscholastic organization and shift its responsibilities to the state Department of Education. Such a move would provide more public oversight on the group that serves an influential role in student life and has a budget of about $1.2 million, Merrill said.

The High School League is funded by membership dues from schools, corporate sponsorships and 20 percent of tickets sales to selected playoff games, said the league’s commissioner, Jerome Singleton. He said the organization works to break even, not to make a profit.

Supporters of the High School League lined up quickly to stick up for the organization, saying Merrill’s got it wrong.

The league is governed by the schools — including principals and administrators — that participate. It is an organization that oversees varsity, junior varsity and B teams throughout the state, including 203 high schools, 205 middle schools and more than 338,000 students.

Members ask the High School League to classify schools by enrollment and geographic location every two years. Schools are responsible for scheduling regular-season events, including nonconference opponents and transporting athletes. That combination causes some long nights, even during the school week. In the spring, it’s not unusual for a school to travel for a track meet and not get home until after midnight. That concerns Merrill.

Some accused Merrill of writing the bill to get back at the league for two incidents earlier this year involving Hanahan High. The Hanahan football team had to forfeit nine games for using ineligible players this past fall. In February, the Hanahan wrestling team’s shot at its first state championship came to an abrupt end when Singleton ruled that the Hawks used an ineligible wrestler in Hanahan’s 34-33 victory against Loris in the Class 2A Lower State final. The league charged the school, which is in Merrill’s legislative district, a $3,300 fine.

The legislation will be considered after lawmakers return to session in January. Richard Luden, athletics director at West Ashley High, said Merrill is off track.

“It sounds like a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “Does he understand that the High School League is governed by us (member schools)? Some people think that it is run by one or two people, but that’s not the case at all. There’s an executive committee that hears appeals and there’s someone from the state Department of Education who is a member of the executive committee.”

Merrill said the situation in Hanahan is one example of why the state should have statutory authority of high school athletics competitions.

He said the league’s recent realignment separated nearby rival schools, resulting in long bus rides for students after evening competitions. Merrill also said he is concerned about the fallout for a Johns Island teen who this year was denied the right to play on the junior varsity football team at James Island Charter School after he transferred from the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science. League rules generally require a transfer student to sit out for a year.

Merrill said the league’s reaction to his proposal comes as no surprise.

“The group that is currently in charge is not going to want to change things,” he said.

Ray Stackley, who has served as athletics director at Stratford High for 26 years and recently completed a four-year term as a member of the league’s executive committee, said the league only enforces the rules.

“It’s the schools, the principals, administrators who make the rules, not the High School League,” Stackley said.

But whether his bill passes or not, Merrill said it will lead to a vetting of the current system and possibly to improvements that all involved can agree on.

Singleton said he’s not sure how to interpret Merrill’s proposal.

“I’m trying to contact Mr. Merrill and see if he has concerns he wants to discuss,” Singleton said. “I have not spoken with him. I am trying to contact him to see if he wants to lay out any areas of concerns he would like to work with us (on).”