By Patrick B. McGuigan
Last week, the legislative Interim Study focused on the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association (OSSAA) concluded after three days of hearings, testimony from dozens of witnesses, and a defense from the association’s executive director.
The deliberations illustrated the role of high school sports in the Sooner State, particularly football. Outlined were conflicts touching on the money and power that flow from the gridiron passion of fans, parents and athletes.
More than a dozen legislators, from both parties, attended the hearings, asking numerous questions of the witnesses.
State Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, asked for the Interim Study in the spring, saying he already believed OSSAA “needs some scrutiny and some direction” from legislators.
Cleveland and other legislators grew steadily more critical of OSSAA policies and practices as the hearings continued in late September and early this month.
Complaints about OSSAA, heard in the course of three meetings, were numerous. State Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Lavern, described the hearings as “eye-opening” and promised legislation would result.
The hearings were structured to give the vast majority of time to OSSAA’s critics, with a defense of the group only coming at the end of the third and last day.
OSSAA leaders they will seek internal reform, but a recent 7-2 state Supreme Court ruling inclined strongly in favor of the association’s critics.
A major criticism focused on what critics consider arbitrary standards in granting or denying waivers to student athletes who transfer from one public school district to another. Specific actions sanctioning schools were critiqued, touching on both basketball and baseball playoffs eligibility rulings over the past year.
Other criticisms, delivered passionately in the case of Jim Dixon, a longtime football coach, centered on changes in apportionment of playoff revenues in football.
Participating schools do not get the bulk of football playoff game income as in past years, with some witnesses saying it has meant a $900,000 loss to schools with histories of success in football.
Representatives of several winning programs decried changes that, they testified, have led to major revenue losses, converting program money-makers into a cash negatives.
OSSAA advocates counter that football has enjoyed an exalted position, but that basketball – also a revenue generator – has not had the same status. OSSAA is the governing body for a wide range of secondary activities, sports and otherwise, and apportions revenues across all areas.
In a statement to The City Sentinel, Rep. Blackwell said, “There are a lot of people who are not happy with this organization and I think it was a highly productive use of the committee’s time. Several pieces of legislation have been proposed from this study that will change business as usual at the OSSAA.”
In closing remarks, Blackwell said, “The OSSAA have been gifted a sacred trust to oversee the athletic competition portion of a child’s education. They have been weighed in the scales of justice and found wanting.”
Ed Sheakley, executive director of OSSAA, spoke for a half-hour near the end of the third hearing. His staff distributed a detailed response to criticisms, including a three-ring binder of information.
In reflections shared with The City Sentinel, he admitted organizational “strengths and weaknesses,” while touting the association’s work with Native American Schools, institutions for the deaf and blind, and co-curricular activities beyond sports.
He stressed OSSAA is a democratic organization, and that policies reflect the views of member schools, not any one sport or faction within secondary schools.
Sheakley promised his staff and board “will carefully evaluate current protocols and procedures, while considering the House Committee’s suggestions. The Study as a whole was beneficial to seeing a different perspective.”
He says many issues raised during the three legislative hearings were under discussion before the interim study began. The group will, he said, “conscientiously contemplate the issues brought up within the study. As with all bodies that gather to implement and enforce rules and policies, we appreciate the opportunity for dialogue that leads to improvement, and recognize the importance of allowing private entities the opportunity to make needed improvements on behalf of those they serve.”
Justice Yvonne Kauger, in a 7-2 ruling last month in a case involving football playoffs, said the association had acted in ways arbitrary and capricious, “with near impunity.”
Her legal analysis in the decision seemed an open invitation to legislators to change the status of the “voluntary” private group to more transparent operations. OSSAA ordered a high school supported by the Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma’s largest Indian tribe, to pay a $25,000 fine, forfeit nine wins, and lose its place in championship playoffs.
Kauger, a former chief justice, wrote for the court majority: “We will, when necessary, examine its actions with the same careful depth we use in examining the decisions of state agencies.”
Schools activities association hearings conclude, legislation likely to follow
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