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'Tired of waiting': SC lawmakers step in to fix questions of fairness in high school sports

Gray Collegiate Academy, a public-charter school in West Columbia, has become a football powerhouse in the South Carolina High School League (SCHSL).
Courtesy of The State
Gray Collegiate Academy, a public-charter school in West Columbia, has become a football powerhouse in the South Carolina High School League (SCHSL).

One sure sign of the arrival of fall in the Palmetto State is high school football.

In many of the state’s small communities, Friday night games with an in-state rival can be the high point of the year. An indication of its importance is the state Legislature stepping in with concerns about the fairness of competition between schools.

Democrat Rep. Russell Ott, who represents small Calhoun County in the state House, said in many cases public high schools are what local communities identify with.

“Lots of times folks graduated from there. They’ve got kids there. They’ve got grandkids there, so that sporting event means a lot,” Ott said.

State championships, especially in football and basketball, mean so much to local communities that the operation of the South Carolina High School League (SCHSL) is under review at the Statehouse. Lawmakers say they hear from constituents who don’t think all of the playing fields are level. In recent years, a number of non-traditional high schools, public-charters and private schools have begun to dominate championships in the league’s two smallest divisions, 1A and 2A.

Public high schools in those divisions have relatively small enrollments. According to SCHSL rules, the charters and privates with similar enrollments compete for the same championships.

Phil Kornblut, who has covered high school athletics for more than 30 years for his “Sports Talk” radio show, said the recent success of non-traditional schools in a number of sports has raised the issue of competitive fairness.

“A larger percentage of the students at the charter schools are athletes, unlike the public high schools. Their focus and their time attention is more on preparation for athletics than it is anything else,” Kornblut said.

Kornblut also said the fact the non-traditional schools can accept students from anywhere in the state has led to at least the perception that good student athletes are being recruited to attend those schools to give them a competitive advantage.

This week a S.C. House panel began looking into all aspects of the South Carolina High School League. The league director, Dr. Jerome Singleton, told lawmakers the competitive landscape for high school team sports has changed.

“The non-traditional schools have won championships in over 90% of our championships in all of our sports. This past year, we had three traditional public schools that actually won state championships out of the 1A and 2A class,” Singleton said.

SC House Education Ad Hoc Committee on High School Athletics meeting on September 11, 2023.
Russ McKinney
SC Public Radio
SC House Education Ad Hoc Committee on High School Athletics meeting on September 11, 2023.

The issue has become so intense that this season a number of Midlands area high schools opted to forfeit their scheduled football games against Gray Collegiate Academy, a public-charter in West Columbia.

For more than 100 years the high school league has governed high school athletics. A rule change aimed at addressing the current problem would have to be approved by two-thirds of the more than 200 high school league members with the largest schools having the greatest say in a weighted-vote system.

Officials with the SCHSL also point to a state budget provision that mandates all public schools in the state be treated equally. They maintain that provision prevents them from altering the current class structure.

House Education Chairwoman Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort said after this week’s special committee meeting she doesn’t have much faith that the league itself will address the situation.

“They (SCHSL) are very slow on the uptake on making changes. And whether for good or bad, that’s the reality,” Erickson said. “So I’m kind of tired of waiting.”

It now appears the Legislature could have the final say in the matter.

The House Ad Hoc Committee on High School Athletics is considering six bills all aimed at modifying how non-traditional schools should be treated by the SCHSL.

“Sports Talk” host Kornblut said the charters could perhaps one day have their own championship division within the SCHSL.

Most of the state’s private or independent schools have had their own championship league for years.

Russ McKinney has 30 years of experience in radio news and public affairs. He is a former broadcast news reporter in Spartanburg, Columbia and Atlanta. He served as Press Secretary to former S.C. Governor Dick Riley for two terms, and for 20 years was the chief public affairs officer for the University of South Carolina.