Basketball by the Book, Part 5

Legislators call for a probe of the nonprofit that governs Missouri high school sports.

Amid mounting complaints about the nonprofit agency that governs high school sports, state lawmakers have called for an investigation of the Columbia-based Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA).

Carl Bearden, a St. Charles Republican, is expected to finalize the configuration of a Special House Committee concerning MSHSAA before the legislative session ends on May 18. The panel will subsequently convene hearings across the state, taking testimony from parents, coaches, athletic directors, students — anybody with an interest in the agency that oversees high school athletic and extracurricular activities.

"There are always concerns among state representatives when their constituents feel like MSHSAA has perhaps unfairly ruled in a case, or not been as vigilant investigating one school as opposed to another, or when a student who maybe inadvertently violated a rule was perhaps punished too harshly," says Bearden's chief of staff, Robert Knodell. "Given the fact that each representative has 35,000 citizens in their constituency, they tend to each receive a fair number of complaints and inquiries."

Republican Gayle Kingery of Poplar Bluff will head the committee, whose findings will be reported to the Missouri General Assembly when the next session begins. The panel could recommend that MSHSAA, an organization governed by its member schools, be subject to state oversight.

House Bill No. 1232, introduced March 29, already aims to do precisely that. The legislation calls either for the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to govern extracurricular activities for all public schools — effectively wiping out MSHSAA — or for MSHSAA's regulations to come under the General Assembly's review and approval.

The bill's sponsor, Representative Jane Cunningham, says she is fed up after at least seven years of observing MSHSAA's decision-making in eligibility cases. "There are inconsistencies, there are abuses, and I just think that it's come to the point where the system doesn't work," says the Chesterfield Republican, who chairs the House's education committee. "It is wrong that an unaccountable, independent organization can have control like this of the citizens' children."

In a written statement, MSHSAA executive director Kerwin Urhahn responds, "As an organization, we're always concerned with legislation that would take control away from our member schools and the democratic system they have established."

According to MSHSAA's constitution, a member school can gather endorsements from 10 percent of the schools and petition the agency for an amendment. If MSHSAA accepts the amendment, the matter is put to all member schools for a simple majority vote.

Cunningham says the final straw came last fall when MSHSAA officials barred her and a half-dozen other state representatives from observing a disciplinary hearing for the Naylor School District in Ripley County, near the Arkansas border. After investigating the residency of all the girls on Naylor's softball and basketball teams last year, MSHSAA ordered Naylor to forfeit numerous games, including a Class 2 state championship. Its girls' basketball team was barred from competing this past season.

Naylor superintendent Steve Cookson says the MSHSAA investigation was sparked by an unsigned letter from a former Naylor employee, which to him is inconsistent with a vague MSHSAA bylaw which specifies only that "any school" may register a complaint against a rival.

"The big question we kept asking was, 'What is an official complaint?'" Cookson says. "Can a disgruntled ex-employee or a disgruntled parent send something up that'll cause you to go over our whole school with a fine-tooth comb? If that's the case, St. Louis is a lot closer: Why not look at Vashon?" Cookson adds, referring to questions raised over the years about Vashon's basketball program.

Cookson says he appealed to state lawmakers because he felt his district had been subjected to a "witch hunt." Perhaps most galling to the superintendent is MSHSAA's refusal to investigate unless a written complaint is filed. "Even then, they pick and choose what to investigate," Cookson complains. "We're the poorest, smallest district in the state. And we get looked at with a fine-toothed comb. Larger and higher-profile programs seem to be treated completely differently. There are so many inconsistencies in the way they address things. They're not representing all members equally. If they're going to be the protectors of the system, consistency is vitally important or you won't have fairness."

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, most agencies that govern high school activities are set up like MSHSAA: as independent member organizations. But there are exceptions. The Kentucky Department of Education approves all the regulations of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association; Texas' University Interscholastic League is affiliated with the University of Texas; and in Maine, the Maine Principals' Association governs extracurricular and athletic activities. Legislatures have interceded in a few states, including Florida. Ten years ago, an effort to abolish the Florida High School Athletic Association resulted in a restructuring of the organization but did not put it under government purview.

Even if Missouri's legislators opt not to act, Cunningham believes MSHSAA will be challenged by some of its own members. "There are athletic directors right now thinking of forming a parallel organization, a competitor," she says. "It has been talked about for a while, but I think they're getting more serious now. It is my estimation that if a competitive group had rules and regulations that people thought were more reasonable, MSHSAA would lose their membership real quickly."

 
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