By Ed Sheakley, OSSAA
Enid News and Eagle
Editor’s note: Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association has come under criticism for its handling and decision making in recent matters including the Class A state baseball tournament which was delayed for one month when a team (Wright City) was declared inelgible and the OSSAA’s decision was challenged in court. The courts eventually ruled OSSAA was the proper ruling authority and OSSAA then overturned its own decision to bar Wright City.
As the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association, I have been concerned about recent complaints from several state legislators OSSAA is not accountable or “transparent” in its operations, and OSSAA acts unfairly and without any oversight. I don’t agree with these accusations, and I’m concerned that they are based on a lack of knowledge about OSSAA and how it functions.
First, let me clarify that OSSAA’s member schools believe interscholastic competitions – in activities such as speech, debate and music as well as in athletics – have an important role in educating high school students. We are dedicated to insuring all students at our member schools, not just the few who are the most talented, have equitable opportunities to participate in these activities. At the same time, we recognize that an overemphasis on competitive athletics, which distracts from the other educational objectives of our member schools or which discourages broader student participation, should be avoided.
To meet these overall educational goals and to insure fair competition, OSSAA member schools necessarily have to choose rules and seek to enforce them uniformly. With OSSAA having just celebrated its centennial year of operations, OSSAA’s member schools now have over 100 years of collective experience in choosing the appropriate rules and determining how they should be enforced. These rules were not simply adopted decades ago and then never re-evaluated. Each fall, OSSAA conducts area meetings with its member schools across the state, to talk about any concerns expressed about the rules and how those rules are being interpreted. The recommendations developed in those area meetings are reported to OSSAA’s fourteen-member Board of Directors. OSSAA’s Board members are elected from all regions of the state and represent schools of varying sizes. Each Board member can also propose new rules and amendments for membership votes. Member schools separately can petition OSSAA’s Board to hold votes on proposed rule changes.
OSSAA’s Constitution also mandates that a formal review of the rules be conducted every five years. That review process was just completed in the past school year. A number of changes were adopted by a vote of the membership, based on the recommendations of our review committee and from our area meetings. In addition, in each activity we have committees that annually review the rules specific to each activity, and propose changes or updates to those rules. All of our member schools have a voice in the organization and ways to effect changes.
With 481 member schools, and several hundred thousand students at those schools each year, OSSAA’s staff annually deals with over 1,000 requests for rule waivers in connection with athletic eligibility. Each request is reviewed independently by two staff members and then by me before a determination is made.
In addition, various accusations of rule violations are raised each year, some of which impact the athletic eligibility of individual students. When dealing with a waiver request or an alleged rule violation we often face strict time constraints. We nevertheless try to evaluate the circumstances thoroughly and make prompt determinations based on demonstrated facts, not on rumor or innuendo. If a member school or a student’s family is dissatisfied with the staff determination, then that determination can be appealed to OSSAA’s Board of Directors. Some families, of course, are dissatisfied with the outcomes, and are more likely to criticize the result, or even the organization as a whole.
OSSAA also is often criticized as being financed by government funds received from public schools. The truth is the majority of the supporting revenue for all of our member schools’ activities comes from ticket sales at OSSAA championship playoff events in basketball and football. As a non-profit organization, OSSAA distributes a substantial portion of these revenues back to the member schools to help them recover some of the costs of these activities. Some minor fees are charged to member schools, based on the number of activities in which they choose to participate, but those fees are charged to all member schools, public and private, and make up only a small part of OSSAA’s budget.
As for accountability, OSSAA’s books and financial records are audited annually by an independent accounting firm, and the audit reports are reviewed by OSSAA’s Board of Directors. The financial results are summarized in a bulletin distributed each year to all member schools and media outlets. While OSSAA is not a state government agency, OSSAA relies on the State Open Meeting and Open Records Act as guides for access to its records and operations. The agendas for all OSSAA Board meetings are published in advance, and the minutes of the meetings, together with audit reports, annual bulletins and financial records, are available for review. The meetings of OSSAA’s Board of Directors, and the appeal hearings before the Board, are all open to the public and are regularly covered by the news media. OSSAA’s Constitution and rules are published and available for public view on OSSAA’s website. Consistent with educational privacy laws, OSSAA keeps some records disclosing individual student information from public access. At times, students and their families also submit private and confidential family information in support of their waiver requests. OSSAA respects those families’ privacy interests and maintains that type of private information as confidential. Otherwise, however, OSSA’s records are open and available for review.
I understand how complaints and rumors can build up about the OSSAA and some of its decisions, which is exactly why our member schools have long been committed to keeping OSSAA’s books and records open for review, and to allowing public access to OSSAA Board of Director meetings and appeal hearings. I invite anyone who has concerns or questions to visit our website at www.ossaa.com, or to sit in on OSSAA Board of Director meetings, to learn more about our Association’s purposes and how we operate. I am proud of what we do and the opportunities that are made available to high school students at our member schools, thanks to the hard work of our staff, the OSSAA Board of Directors, our member school administrators and coaches, and our extensive network of volunteers in each of our activities. I believe those who take a closer look will be pleased to see what we do.
Sheakley is executive director of the Oklahoma Secondary School