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Oklahoma athletics association struggles at politics

The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association, which regulates high school athletics, has inserted itself into state politics. And that hasn’t worked out too well for the group.
by Nolan Clay Published: March 9, 2014

The association that regulates high school athletics hires lobbyists and gives out plenty of free playoff tickets to legislators.

It also, from time to time, issues “alerts” to school administrators, asking them to contact their state representatives or senators immediately.

Those are the ways the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association has inserted itself into state politics.

Lately, that hasn’t worked out too well for the group.

OSSAA is under fire at the Capitol because fed-up legislators say they have heard too many complaints from offended student-athletes’ parents and from angry coaches.

“It was absolutely asinine,” one parent wrote a lawmaker of an OSSAA decision.

Legislators responded this year by introducing six bills targeting OSSAA. Advancing the farthest so far are two that give the Legislature oversight of the association.

Making things worse for OSSAA, this year it has had to find a new lobbyist. Both its original lobbyists dropped the association as a client. One told the association in a letter it was inflexible.

Fueling the focus on the group is a harsh opinion by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

In a 7-2 ruling last October, the Supreme Court slammed the association for taking arbitrary and capricious actions against a football team.

State Supreme Court slams association

“Competition in sports is more than a mere passing enjoyment for students,” Justice Yvonne Kauger wrote for the majority. “Particularly in rural areas, athletic teams are the glue which holds the community together. The college and post-college careers of student athletes often have their genesis at the secondary school level, and for some provide the only path to higher education.

“The OSSAA wields too much control over their future to be allowed to act in an arbitrary and capricious manner in applying its rules. It must be reasonable, it must be conscientious and it must be fair. From now on, we trust, it will be.”

OSSAA oversees extracurricular activities for nearly every public school in Oklahoma for grades seven through 12. It makes decisions on the makeup of athletic districts, playoffs and student transfers and eligibility.

It has 481 members and an annual budget of about $5 million.

OSSAA officials and its supporters contend lawmakers should not be interfering in the doings of a private association.

“We understand we are not a perfect organization,” OSSAA Executive Director Ed Sheakley said. “We understand that we can always get better. And we want to get better. But we feel that our changes need to be from within and from our membership and not by our state government.

“We’ve been around for a long time ... over 100 years,” he also said. “We’re always changing. … We want to do what’s best for kids.”

In debating against one of the oversight bills, Rep. Gary Banz, R-Midwest City, in February questioned whether legislators will want to oversee the Oklahoma Coaches Association if some parent complains about his child not making an All-State team.

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by Nolan Clay
Sr. Reporter
Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,...
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