Should Department of Education Control OSSAA? | Athletic Business

Should Department of Education Control OSSAA?

Controversy is raging in Oklahoma over whether the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association should be placed under the direction of the Oklahoma Department of Education. 

The OSSAA is a private, nonprofit organization according to its constitution and oversees interscholastic competition for approximately 500 Oklahoma high schools. 

In 2014, legislators attempted to put the OSSAA under state control and they are trying again after recent scrutiny of the OSSAA's policy banning sanctioned public prayer at OSSAA postseason events. 

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According to Bobby Cleveland who is leading the effort to put the OSSAA under state control, said the policy violates the U.S. Constitution and could force Oklahoma school districts to lose federal funds. However, OSSAA executive director Ed Sheakley polled other state associations and found 41 of the 42 responding states have similar policies regarding prayer. 

Cleveland's group also says the OSSAA has excessive power over eligibility issues and athletic revenue streams responsible for funding the OSSAA's annual $5 million budget. 

Proponents of the OSSAA say that any deliberative body is going to have enemies when it is forced to rule on a large amount of issues. 

The Oklahoma Coaches Association is holding its annual convention and polled the attending coaches and administrators about the issues surrounding the OSSAA. Many of the respondents said they valued the OSSAA's autonomy and felt the organization was best suited to oversee high school athletics. 

Craig Benson, a high school football coach, said, "We have to have a governing body that understands the needs of our students. OSSAA deals with a wide range of problems. The state Department of Education hasn't the time, nor the energy, to fix what OSSAA can." 

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On the other hand, Cleveland's group says the OSSAA has been run in near-dictatorial fashion while Sheakley has been in office. 

State Sen. Marty Quinn said, "OSSAA has been a one-man team for a long time. Sheakley has done what he wanted and until he starts seeing things differently - that the OSSAA is not a one-man operation - that's the way I'm going to look at it." 

While the majority of the legislation Cleveland's group tried to pass in 2014 didn't make it through committee, they did manage to pass a bill forcing stricter transparency measures on the OSSAA. 

There are currently 23 Republican state senators in addition to Cleveland who are calling for renewed efforts to place the OSSAA under the Department of Education. They cite a 2013 ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court that was critical of the OSSAA for its handling of a case against an Oklahoma high school football team. 

The Tahlequah Sequoyah football team was banned from the 2012 Class 3A playoffs because of admitted rule violations. However, in a finding for the team's former quarterback about a year later, the court said the OSSAA acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner in interpreting and enforcing its rules. 

Justice Yvonne Kauger wrote in a majority opinion, "This Court has permitted the OSSAA, in the guise of a voluntary association, to govern the affairs of secondary school athletics in Oklahoma with near impunity. No more." 

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The OSSAA was ordered to repay the $25,000 penalty it had imposed on the high school. 

Tulsa Public Schools athletic director Gil Cloud believes the legislators should focus their efforts on what he believes are bigger issues in the state of Oklahoma. 

“I wish they would spend more time trying to find ways to fund education, which is an urgent need, and not on who governs athletics,” Cloud said.

Only three state associations throughout the country are under the control of the state government. Delaware is one of these states, and Kevin Charles, the head of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Asssociation, says it's been an issue. 

"There is no question … that falling within (the Delaware Department of Education) … hinders our ability to operate at maximum efficiency and achieve maximum growth,” he said. “But we make it work."

Cleveland's group's argues the OSSAA ultimately belongs to Oklahoma taxpayers because participating public schools receive state funds. However, the OSSAA doesn't receive state funding. The majority of its funding comes from postseason admission revenue, and it also receives a small portion of its funding from participation fees paid by individuals at each school. 

Despite the criticism of Shakeley and the OSSAA, many say they still have faith in him and the organization. 

“To me, the OSSAA makes the right decision 95 percent of the time,” former Collinsville superintendent Terry Due said.

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