State lawmaker aims to upend high school sports group to stop their evilness

For a one-stoplight city, Chickamauga is having an outsized influence on the politics of high school athletics in Georgia.

It is easy to explain, of course, because state Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Republican from Chickamauga, is enraged at the Georgia High School Association, the governing body of high school athletics. Less than a month after the association pushed Mullis’ alma mater, Gordon Lee High School, up from Class A to Class AA, Mullis pre-filed two bills in the state Legislature aimed menacingly at the GHSA.

Mullis’ Senate Bill 328 seeks to overhaul the entire governance structure of high school athletics in the state by dismantling the association and replacing it with another governing body. It seemed a clear message. Gordon Lee was getting pushed up to Class 2A to compete against schools with higher enrollments where the Trojans will be less competitive, and Mullis was not happy about it.

Senate Bill 334, also filed by Mullis, would make public and private schools with 640 students or fewer compete in separate regions and playoffs. The association, for the first time in 10 years, voted in December to combine public and private championships in its A classification, the lowest. Gordon Lee has 428 students, according to GHSA data. Mullis wants Gordon Lee in Class A and not to have to compete with private schools for state titles.

Mullis said in January from the floor of the Senate in announcing the bills the association is “trying to protect their evilness.” Even for a politician known for his antics, it seemed hyperbolic. Mullis said he was standing up for small high schools, like Gordon Lee, and giving schools and athletes “due process” by reworking the GHSA into a fairer governing body.

Still, it seemed like a bit of gamesmanship because the chair of the gatekeeping Senate Rules Committee also said, “Sometimes you produce legislation to make a better Georgia. Sometimes you produce legislation to get people’s attention.” It was as if the bills were meant as orchestrated arm-twisting.

Mullis did not respond to two email requests asking about his reasons for filing the bills.

Students, parents and sports fans might not directly feel the bureaucratic reshaping of the GHSA, but SB 328 also includes language that could be epic in its consequences, especially for the smaller schools Mullis purports to defend.

That legislation carries the signatures of some other high-ranking members of Mullis’ chamber, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan. It would tear down boundaries of school zones across the state and allow athletes who live in one zone to play immediately at another school. Currently, athletes must make their primary residence in a school district to play for that district’s team.

In effect, SB 328 will allow a sort of free agency in high school athletics. It is common knowledge that parents and coaches collude in Georgia with fake addresses and fake documents in order to circumvent rules and build winning teams with athletes outside their school zone, but that comes with the risk of the player and school being declared ineligible. Mullis’ legislation removes the risk.

“It could be tragic for small schools,” Allen Fort, the superintendent of Taliaferro County schools, who has been an educator for 47 years in the state, said. “It could be like what’s happening with the transfer portal in college athletics, kids transferring all over the place, to where we have two kinds of schools, winners and losers, and nothing in between.”

Dominos will start to fall, Fort said.

“What happens is a small school loses a great athlete or two to a big school, and it affects the small school’s football team, in terms of wins and losses,” he said. “Fewer people come to see the small school play because they aren’t winning, which affects the school’s revenue, and for 80 to 85 percent of schools in Georgia, football is your money generator. They rely on football to fund their entire athletic program.

“Then you have the second level effects on revenue, which are concessions, maybe operated by the band. Fewer people are there to buy snacks (because the team is losing), and the band has less money. Then you have the third level of revenue, the raffle the baseball team puts on at the football game. There are fewer fans and the baseball team sells fewer raffle tickets.”

Johnny Gilbert, the head football coach at 3A Dougherty High School, said his program is not as well-funded as bigger schools in the Albany area, and his players could be targeted. Dougherty County schools have 14,479 students.

“If (SB 328) happens, it is always going to linger in the back of your mind that you could lose kids to the big schools if you don’t maintain a strong program,” Gilbert said.

And what about the “kids” in this wrangling among adults?

At Jefferson’s, a restaurant in downtown Ringgold on a recent Saturday afternoon, four Ringgold varsity baseball players were sitting around a table and were asked, “What if a 6-foot-2, 220-pound all-star shortstop suddenly left a neighboring school and enrolled at Ringgold and one of the current players lost their starting position?”

Ringgold’s shortstop, Mason Parker, whose starting spot would be in jeopardy, smiled and said, “I’d compete with him, bring it on. Coach is paid to win games so he has to put the best team out there.”

Across the table, first baseman Myles Hudson said about all-stars from outside Ringgold suddenly parachuting on to the roster, “The kids here would compete against them, but the parents would be very upset. The parents supported the program as we came up. The parents wouldn’t be for it at all.”

At Milton High School in 2012, parents rebelled against boys basketball coach David Boyd, who was bringing in sensational players from all over metro Atlanta to the Alpharetta school. Milton won two state championships under Boyd.

The Milton parents, whose children had grown up in the Milton “feeder” program as fifth-, sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, watched their kids get bumped from starting lineups and rosters in high school by talented transfers. The Milton parents had also supported the high school varsity program by donating thousands of dollars for equipment.

The Fulton County School board investigated Boyd for the recruiting violations, and he resigned. But the real catalyst for Boyd leaving was the unhappy parents of students who grew up in the community and got squeezed off teams by out-of-town stars.

If SB 328 passes, young student athletes who dreamed of playing for the local school, would have to tolerate an ambitious coach, or boosters, recruiting top talent from out of district. Local taxes would be diluted. After all, students who are recruited to a school presumably would not pay taxes to the school they enter as out-of-district students.

City of Decatur taxes, which pay for a small school system (5,700 students), are frequently more than $10,000 a year per household. Many parents in Decatur have made it clear in the past their taxes are too high and classes too crowded to bring in athletes from elsewhere in metro Atlanta.

Hans Utz, who is on the Decatur Board of Education, said he cannot speak for the high school administration, but said, “If … the proposal (SB328) ends up as a mechanism for a well-funded school to poach talent from an under-funded school, leading to fewer resources, or less income for that school, then I’d be strongly opposed to it.”

This is not the first time a powerful state politician has thrown his weight around with the high school association. According to the Albany Herald, then-House speaker Tom Murphy went after the GHSA in 2000 when his daughter, a student at Bremen, said her debate team could not compete with private schools.

In 2017, the late Georgia Rep. John Meadows, who represented a northwest Georgia House district, pushed a bill to dissolve the GHSA and place it under the control of the state Board of Education. The bill forced the ouster of association executive director Gary Phillips.

Taliaferro’s Fort, who has worked at eight schools in Georgia as a teacher, administrator and coach, said every school in the GHSA, whether they are city schools, county schools, public or private, has a chance to participate in association governance. He was on the GHSA board for six years and insisted all schools are represented.

The vote to adopt the reclassification of schools Mullis is objecting to was 64-2 in favor by the GHSA executive committee.

“The GHSA has its warts,” Fort said, “but it is not evil. Can you prove year after year, day in and day out, as to the unfairness or corruption of the Georgia High School Association? I don’t think you can.”

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