OK private group’s control of high school athletics draws intense scrutiny
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Published: 18-Sep-2013

OKLAHOMA CITY – A private association, the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Athletic Association (OSSAA), is the subject of increasing legislative and news media scrutiny for power it wields in controlling sports competition in the Sooner State. 

Legislators this week heard from coaches, a newspaper publisher, parents of potential star athletes and others about what they deemed OSSAA’s excessive powers over eligibility, athletic income streams and access to information. Sitting quietly during a hearing at the state Capitol was legendary University of Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer, who has infrequently criticized OSSAA policies.  

A key Republican legislator said he wants answers about the group’s policies, practices and income. If those answers are not forthcoming, legal action seems certain. 

Tuesday, Lynn Martin, publisher of the Alva Courier-Review, described his experiences as a small town newspaper man, with a photography and school yearbook business on the side. Stressing the importance of competitive athletics to towns like his, he sketched years of involvement following regional teams to state tournaments, where he took photos for hometown publications.

Beginning in recent years, however, he encountered OSSAA officials who would not allow journalists (or parents, for that matter) to capture championship presentations from favorable angles. Martin, describing himself as mild-mannered, said he told OSSAA officials the new policy was not fair.

They replied, he said, that licensed professional photographers, who had “paid for this exclusivity” in the form of a fee to OSSAA. Their advantageous positioning allowed for better photographs from the championship trophy presentations. 

Martin said, “OSSAA is edging toward the corruption of big-time professional or college athletics.” 

Indeed, the power of money was one theme of the legislative interim study, the first of three scheduled for this month. Critics of OSSAA, including several football coaches, decried the results of a shift in playoff money receipts in recent years.

Whereas participating schools used to share gate receipts from playoff games, OSSAA rule changes in recent years shifted the money in the organization coffers.

That $900,000 shift of income from schools’ (mostly public, but some private) athletic budgets to OSSAA control has raised hackles. The private 501 c 3 tax-exempt organization maintains its records and deliberations are not subject to open government and transparency requirements. 

State Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Laverne, is running the Interim Study as chairman of the House Administrative Rules, Government Oversight and Repealer Committee. He asked only a few questions at the first hearing, but got everyone’s attention when he announced he expects OSSAA to answer the committee’s questions about operations, or he will compel answers with subpoenas or legal action. 

Driving force behind the push for the Interim Study has been state Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville. He said he was drawn to the issue by constituent complaints and recognition of the “substantial tax dollars (OSSAA) receives from school districts throughout the state” in the form of association dues. Cleveland frequently questioned witnesses, all of whom were critical of the association. 

The interim study’s dynamics illustrate the power of high school sports in Oklahoma culture, including a heavy presence of urban and rural legislators from both parties, with no obvious OSSAA defenders visible. 

Coach Jim Dixon, a three-decade veteran of football coaching, said relations between high school coaches and the OSSAA “are at an all-time low.” He pressed criticisms of OSSAA’s gate receipts policies and other strictures limiting public input, wondering aloud, “Is this about OSSAA, or is it about the kids?” 

Coach Switzer’s presence was evidence of his concern over OSSAA policies that severely restrict the ability of home-schoolers to participate in high school athletics. Also commenting at the hearing was Gary Savely of Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School. While explicitly cordial toward OSSAA officials, he described OSSAA policies as antagonistic toward Catholic schools. 

Asking questions during the hearing, in addition to Blackwell and Cleveland, were state Reps. Marty Quinn, R-Claremore, Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, Glen Mulready, R-Glenpool, and Will Fourkiller D-Stillwell. 

Although invited, OSSAA officials did not testify at the hearing. One administrator for the group sat in the back of the hearing room, watching proceedings without comment. 

You may contact Pat McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com .

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