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Perspective | Education issues under the Friday night lights

Three decades have passed since H.G. Buzz Bissinger moved to Odessa, TX, in pursuit of a story of “high school sports keeping a town together, keeping it alive.” His 1990 book, Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream, became a huge bestseller with spin-offs in a 2004 movie and a 2006-11 award-winning TV series.

North Carolina does not match Texas in the scale and intensity of high school football — and shouldn’t aspire to do so. For instance, Bissinger reported that Permian High in Odessa spent nearly $70,000 for chartered jets. Still across North Carolina, high school football, basketball, baseball, and other sports continue to serve as agents of community identity, the games as moments of gathering across divisions of partisanship, creed, race, and class.

In the 2018-19 school year, before the COVID-19 disruption, 26,969 boys participated in 11-player football in North Carolina, a marked decline from the peak of 36,273 in 2013-14. For comparison, 11,152 boys and 7,649 girls competed in basketball.

Over this week, football teams engaged in inter-school scrimmages and “jamborees,” in preparation for the opening next week of the regular schedule of full Friday night games. Quite unexpectedly, meanwhile, the governance of high school athletics has flared up as an issue in the General Assembly.

Republican-sponsored legislation would create an Interscholastic Athletic Commission as a state agency, effectively replacing the N.C. High School Athletics Association (NCHSAA). The commission would have a board with nine members appointed by the governor, eight by legislative leaders. Lawmakers have questioned the NCHSAA for hoarding too much money — $40 million in endowment and assets — and for harshness in imposing penalties.

It is not uncommon for an issue of statewide import to spring from a local grievance or anecdote, as well as informal conversations among legislators and constituents at the town diner. Richard Craver of the Winston-Salem Journal has reported that Sen. Tom McInnis of Anson County joined in pushing the legislation in the aftermath of the county high school’s football team having been ruled ineligible for the 2019 playoffs.

The NCHSAA was formed more than 100 years ago out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It collects dues from member schools, aligns schools into divisions by enrollment, supervises game officials, issues safety standards, imposes fines, and rules on eligibility.

Clearly, the association ranks among the power centers that affect the lives and education of students and the livelihoods of adults, especially coaches. In an open democracy that holds power accountable to the people, the association is not immune to monitoring — by its members, by the news media, by parents, and by legislators.

But even as lawmakers hold hearings and engage in behind-the-scenes negotiations, they are accountable, too, in making a case for their proposed remedy. They have exercised oversight but have not explained convincingly how a government agency with a board of political appointees would improve the educational and athletic experiences of tens of thousands of North Carolina teenagers. The question deserves an answer in a framework wider than an institutional power struggle — that is, in reaching for a proper balance between athletics and academics.

In a recent announcement of awards, the NCHSAA opened with this congratulatory sentence: “In a year like none before, high school athletics managed to complete regular seasons and award conference championships, providing student-athletes across the state valuable opportunities to compete, grow and learn in an education-based setting.” The important phrase – “compete, learn and grow in an education-based setting” — points to an array of issues for the association, educators, and lawmakers to confront regardless of governance structure.

No doubt, football keeps many young men in school, as band, chorus, drama club, and other outside-class activities enrich high school for many boys and girls. If so, how can the state address disparities in athletic opportunities among schools as it addresses educational inequities? While some rural schools struggle to find enough players to fill a roster, should sprawling urban-suburban schools cut students from teams and thus deprive them of that educational experience? Do the regular seasons, plus playoffs, in the major team sports have too many adolescents playing too many games? How should schools, working with parents, discourage unhealthy athletic specialization among teenagers? 

When the Friday night lights are turned off, the issues of scale, equity, finances, and educational purpose and effectiveness of high school athletics in North Carolina remain to be analyzed and addressed by parents, legislators, education policymakers and teachers.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.