Commentary: GHSA should stand its ground in fight over Phillips

(Jason Getz/AJC)

(Jason Getz/AJC)

It seems typically ironic that a state representative had this to say about the Georgia High School Association on Monday.

“I don’t think any of them know what their job is,” he said, adding that he receives more complaints about the GHSA — from schools, from referees, from coaches and from parents — than just about everything else put together. “Basically I’m sick of it.”

This coming from Georgia Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, chairman of the House Rules Committee, at a time when elected officials become joyous if their approval rating edges toward 50 percent.

Meadows introduced House Bill 415, while a colleague in the Georgia Senate introduced the nearly identical Senate Bill 203. Both bills would dissolve the GHSA and put high school athletics under the purview of the state’s Board of Education, which should, by all accounts, be preoccupied with failing schools, teachers leaving the profession in droves and helping local school districts find enough school books to go around.

GHSA’s Phillips offers to retire amid legislative pressure

It’s hard to fathom that Gov. Nathan Deal, or anybody of sane mind, would sign off on a bill like this, given the less-government stump speeches, financial concerns and Deal’s overwhelming desire to fix schools, keep teachers and graduate students. Like health care, the operation of running high school sports is complicated. And I can’t see Georgia voters wanting any part of a government takeover of the GHSA.

Yet, there was Jay Russell, the GHSA assistant executive director, running to Atlanta on Monday to kiss the rings and tell the state reps that Gary Phillips, GHSA executive director, would resign or retire at the end of the school year and that everything would be all right. This has been standard operating procedure for the GHSA since 2000, when the late speaker of the house Tom Murphy threatened to pull the plug on the organization, then took control. The statehouse yells, the GHSA pants.

Murphy got angry in 2000 when his daughter-in-law complained that her Bremen debate team could not compete against the Atlanta private schools because those schools could “recruit” debaters. That led the GHSA to devise an enrollment multiplier for private schools that remains a contentious issue today, 17 years later.

Since that time, the elected legislators (i.e. fans-with-power) have treated the GHSA like a big block of ice, chipping off glass-size pieces during each legislative session.

How bad has it been? Que the circus music for some of the highlights:

• In 2006, one of our state senators said that many politicians were ready to take the GHSA out of business. Among the concerns: high ticket prices, an uneven number of teams in region alignments and the belief that every kid on every team deserved a chance to play in every game.

• In 2007, a bill was introduced that would eliminate ties in the state championship football games. We had two that season. The state representative lived in one of those team’s school districts.

• In 2008, a Newnan legislator introduced a bill stating that public schools would not have to adhere to GHSA seating-capacity mandates during the state football playoffs. That debate hinged on butt size. The GHSA considered 24 inches as a normal butt size. The Newnan rep said it should be 18 inches, and I’m guessing he had a tape measure and enough butts around him to prove it. Newnan’s stadium could not host a game during the 2007 season.

• In 2014, a bill was introduced demanding that the GHSA had to release all of its financial reports, which in fact, the organization has been doing so since inception. The wording of the bill insinuated that the GHSA was hiding money, padding pockets, cheating the paying public. It was insulting.

• In 2016, it was the religious liberty bill. A cross country runner showed up at a state meet with a Bible verse on his headband. Per National High School Federation rules, which forbids company logos, messaging, etc., from being worn during competition, the GHSA had to ask the runner to remove the headband. The runner refused and competed, but parents from the private Christian school complained about the GHSA’s request. The bill said, in layman’s terms, that kids could express their religious beliefs on any article of clothing they wanted to wear.

• And then there is this bill, a portion that states that student-athletes will immediately be eligible to play sports when they transfer to any school, regardless of whether they move into the school district. Yeah, that would work. The transfer issue, as anyone close to high school sports knows, is the greatest threat the GHSA has faced in its efforts to maintain a level playing field for all. Ironically, this rule probably would favor schools with superior athletic programs, including Buford, Cartersville and Calhoun, areas that three of the bills’ proponents represent.

In fairness, you also have had bills that were not originated by fandom that benefited all. The Ryan Boslett bill, introduced after the death of a Collins Hill football player, required more stringent physicals before play. A heat bill, introduced after the August heat-related death of a football player, required instruments that measured heat and humidity and showed when it was time to get off the field. Another bill encouraged the GHSA to diversify its executive committee.

This shows that there can be a common denominator for sports and politics. But it won’t come from our elected fans-with-power.

Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, and Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, are among the 12 legislators who have crafted the bills. Both represent districts that include Cartersville High, which has been at odds with the GHSA over matters such as reclassification, game receipts and baseball playoff scheduling. Two years ago, Cartersville’s baseball team had to stay an extra day in a South Georgia hotel to finish a semifinal series delayed by rain. Parents were angry.

These lawmakers apparently wanted Phillips’ head, based on those decisions. And they have insinuated that they might pull or delay the bill if Phillips is removed. During a Monday hearing, Meadows said the plans for a GHSA takeover is a work in progress. And he said, “This bill is the stick.” Most took that to mean that he could pull it out anytime he wants to and hit the GHSA over the head with it.

So here’s where we are: Moms and dads get upset, so lawmakers introduce a bill that does away with the GHSA, lets the state Board of Education take over high school sports and puts a man, who has given his life to kids, on the cusp of losing his job.

Has Phillips and the GHSA been perfect? Of course not. It’s a love-hate thing with all of us.

Nobody has cast a more critical eye on the GHSA than those of us who have spent the last 14 years following high school sports at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But right now, what’s going on with the GHSA feels like the age-old brother story: I can criticize my brothers until the cows come home because I grew up with them; I’ve lived with them through the good and bad; I understand them and have earned that right.

You have not.

That’s the problem with these twin bills. They were born from fan anger, institutional ignorance and offer nothing of benefit to either party. This entire episode smells more like a coup than concern.

I wish the GHSA executive committee would stand up to these disgruntled lawmakers when a final vote is taken Monday.

Override the GHSA Board of Trustees, which voted 5-3 Monday to request Phillip’s retirement. Tell the statehouse you aren’t going to fire Phillips, not going to accept a resignation, not going to let him retire. Tell the state to go ahead take over high school sports, the 454 sports playing schools, the 175,000 or so athletes, the 24 sports seasons, the regular season, the playoffs, the game officials, the insurance and thousands of other things that come into play each year.

Stand your ground. Call the bluff.

And if you lose – and there’s a chance you will — let the 15 or so elected officials who signed off on this legislation go to Thomaston, take over the jobs down there and run a good thing straight into the ground.

Only then might they find out that any sports organization is going to get criticized. Only then might they find out that you are only going to please high school moms and dads half the time. Only then might they find out that if you break it, you own it.

And only then might they find out that their time would have been better spent finding great teachers for our Georgia schools.

By paying them what they are worth.


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