Lawmakers will move to eliminate the S.C. High School League, which regulates athletics, unless the group changes some of its rules this weekend.
The fate of the 99-year-old High School League appears to depend on answering complaints raised when Goose Creek High School, one of the state's top football teams, was disqualified from the playoffs last year for using an ineligible player.
"I'm not here to abolish the High School League," Goose Creek head coach Chuck Reedy told a state Senate panel Wednesday. "I'm here to say, 'Fix the league.' ... If they won't make changes, I encourage you to make the changes for them."
State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, who chairs the panel, replied: "I hope they are listening to you in that meeting in Charleston," where league members will meet this weekend.
Legislative sponsors of a bill to give regulation of high school sports to the state Education Department, instead of the league, said they are responding to years of complaints about the league, not just the Goose Creek incident. The league is funded by dues paid by more than 200 schools and revenue from championship games. The group's executive council is chosen by schools and various school associations.
Several witnesses and lawmakers at the Senate hearing Wednesday complained about what they said were inconsistent rulings by the league.
However, state Rep. Mike Anthony, D-Union , who coached high school football, told the Senate panel that he will go to Charleston this weekend to convince league officials to make changes before lawmakers take away their authority.
"We can do what this bill says, whether they like it or not," Anthony said. "It's a crying shame that ... adults make mistakes that cost kids."
Goose Creek says it discovered one of its football players was ineligible after finding a transcript late in the season that suggested he was playing a fifth year of high school athletics. The school reported the issue to the league. The athlete participated in 17 plays late in five games when undefeated Goose Creek led by at least 41 points, Reedy told senators.
When an ineligible athlete is dressed to play, the minimum penalty the league levies is forfeiting that game, executive director Jerome Singleton said. The league can hand down more severe penalties if a school is found willfully to use an ineligible player.
Reedy said the High School League ignored his pleas to punish him, not his players. The school unsuccessfully appealed to the league's executive committee before winning a temporary reprieve from a Circuit Court. But the league's executive committee again turned down Goose Creek, which had to forfeit 10 games and could not defend its state title.
"We were speeding, turned ourselves in and (they said), 'OK, you're going to (get) the death penalty for that,' " Reedy said.
Singleton, who has worked for the league for 18 years, said he was following the league's regulations as written. Singleton and the executive committee can take special circumstances into consideration -- and has.
Singleton said he reversed half of the 168 appeals made to him since July 1, most of which were over player eligibility. The league's executive committee, where schools can appeal Singleton's decisions, overturned all but seven of the 45 cases that came before it, Singleton said.
State Education Superintendent Mick Zais, who would assume control of high school sports if the bill passes, is neutral on the issue, spokesman Jay Ragley said. However, Zais would back the bill eliminating the league if its legislative assembly votes, as proposed, to remove four private schools -- including reigning two-time state football champions Christ Church in Greenville -- from the league, which is dominated by public schools, Ragley said.
The High School League's legislative assembly will weigh three measures that could satisfy lawmakers: creating a separate appeals panel; establishing less severe penalties than forfeiting games for using an ineligible player; and requiring better geographical distribution of the members on the league's executive committee, now dominated by schools west of Interstate 95.
The Senate panel agreed to wait until the league's legislative assembly meets before moving ahead with the bill. A similar bill to end the high school league's authority over high school sports reached the S.C. House floor last month, but debate was suspended until Monday.
State Rep. Joseph Daning, R-Goose Creek, who sponsored the House bill, said he is not holding out too much hope the league will change its rules enough to halt legislation moving regulation of athletics to the state Education Department.
"We will take real good consideration of what they do," Daning said of the upcoming weekend meeting.
State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, said he will keep pushing for his Senate bill even if the league adopts changes because he feels the current system is biased.
"You need to have an independent body ... that's not worried about who will win the next state championship," he said.