N.C. Senate Republicans have introduced Senate Bill 636, titled “An Act to Revise Oversight of High School Interscholastic Athletics,” a wide-ranging piece of legislation that would strip power away from the N.C. High School Athletic Association, the governing body of prep sports in the state.
Among its many provisions — one of which looks to limit the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) to four classifications — the bill, introduced on April 5, would prevent transgender athletes from competing on sports teams at the high school level that align with their gender identity. Instead, the bill requires “interscholastic teams or sports shall be designated as biological sex.” It defines biological sex as “based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth.”
Since its introduction, the bill has created quite the debate, especially alongside the news that state Rep. Tricia Cotham from Charlotte switched parties from Democrat to Republican, giving the latter a supermajority in the state legislature. With a supermajority, Republicans have enough votes to overturn any vetoes Gov. Roy Cooper might impose.
In Chatham, those associated with high school athletics seem to agree about one thing: they see S.B. 636 as unnecessary and ultimately harmful to the state athletics scene.
“I think the association has the best interests of the student-athletes in mind, and they know the most about sports and what it entails,” Woods Charter Athletic Director Dena Floyd said. “Not for all the constituents, but most importantly the student-athletes, the coaches that are leading these student-athletes and the administrators in the schools. I think they know a lot more than the (legislature). It should be about more than just control. It should be about the student-athlete and giving them the best experience.”
Provisions banning transgender athletes in S.B. 636 have also been introduced elsewhere in the N.C. General Assembly as Senate Bill 631 and House Bill 574. If passed, the legislation — dubbed the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” — would keep transgender student-athletes from playing sports for a team of the gender they identify with.
On Tuesday morning, the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” passed a Senate panel. The House debated its version of the bill Wednesday, which occurred after press time.
“It’s super alienating,” said Aiden Vigus, a former Northwood wrestler who is now a sophomore at Appalachian State. “A lot of people don’t have any other form of community, or their family isn’t there for them. Sports build a community, and to rob people of that is really, really wrong, especially at the high school or middle school level. It’s not justifiable to take that away from people.”
Right now, the NCHSAA offers a process for transgender student-athletes to apply to compete based on their gender identification. According to NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker, 18 applications have been received by the association’s Gender Identity Committee since 2019; 17 of the applications have been approved.
Vigus, who identifies as non-binary, told the News + Record they thought the proposed bill was “fear-mongering” on part of the legislature to try and paint transgender females as a threat to women’s sports.
Vigus brought up an incident oft-cited by supporters of the bill in which a transgender girl competing for Highlands High’s volleyball team spiked a ball off an opponent’s face, causing head and neck injuries. After that game, Cherokee County Schools canceled all games between Highlands High and other schools in the district over safety concerns.
“Let’s not pretend that injuries don’t happen anyway or that having a ball spiked on your head wouldn’t hurt if it was a woman doing it,” Vigus said. “I just think it’s silly ... The way I see it, if you can have co-ed wrestling and not care about those things, I don’t understand why you care about other sports. People are being thrown around (in wrestling). It’s just confusing to me.”
Oliver Ewy, a senior at Northwood and president of the school’s Pride Club, said he wasn’t surprised when S.B. 636 was introduced because of similar legislation that has been signed into law in other southern states like Tennessee and Florida. He worries, though, about the affect taking high school sports away from transgender students may have on their mental health.
“I think sports and other extra-curriculars are extremely important, especially for transgender students who might not have a strong support system at home, to have a stronger support system outside of the home at school or in sports if they desire that,” Ewy said. “I think that anyone playing sports that seeks it out for fun or to find a community, their team is extremely important to them, and they want to feel like they’re supported by their teammates and their coaches. I think this bill makes it a lot harder for students to feel that support.”
Equality NC, a statewide LGBTQ nonprofit, has been a vocal opponent of the bill since it was introduced. On its website, the organization claims S.B. 636 is an “attack on trans youth.”
“Despite the absence of any evidence for competitive advantage for trans athletes, lawmakers are attempting to bully trans kids — even though fewer than 20 trans students have even applied to participate in sports congruent with their identities in N.C.,” the organization said in a statement. “We need to raise our voices in defense of these kids.”
Classifications and charters
Prior to S.B. 636’s introduction, there were plans for NCHSAA-member schools to vote on increasing classifications from four up to seven.
On Tuesday, the association announced the amendment increasing classifications from four to seven was approved by a vote of member principals, with plans for it to take affect beginning the 2025-26 school year. An approval means at least 324 principals out of 424 member schools voted in favor of the resolution.
But if passed, the bill would limit the association to four classifications based on Average Daily Membership (ADM), which is the current arrangement. This, several Chatham athletic directors believe, is a bad move considering the growing nature of the state as a whole.
“North Carolina’s population is one of the fastest growing populations in our country,” said Northwood Athletic Director Cameron Vernon. “With that population increase comes new high schools into the NCHSAA. As we increase the number of high schools, it only makes sense to increase classifications. It will provide more opportunities for our student athletes to compete for championships. I think elected officials need to stay out of this and allow coaches, athletic directors and administrators to make the call by the vote that recently took place.”
The NCHSAA has operated with four classifications — 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A, tied school size — in many sports since 1969, with 1A being the smallest school classification and 4A being the largest school classification. Several smaller states like South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia all have at least five classifications. Many involved in state athletics feel like a move to more classifications is a long time coming.
Others have taken issue with how S.B. 636 would require charter schools to play in the next-highest classification based on their Average Daily Membership, a figure the NCHSAA uses to separate teams into classifications. ADM is calculated by taking the total number of days within a given term a student’s name is on the current roll of a class divided by the number of days school is in session. Woods Charter, which has an ADM of under 200, competes at the 1A level right now, but the Wolves would have to move up to 2A if the bill is passed.
“I’m not sure why they’re putting up charters into a higher classification,” Floyd said. “Every charter is different. Putting us up in 2A would be pretty tough. I think there needs to be change so there’s equality between all the schools, but I also think there’s also a lot more involved than just ADM numbers.”
Charter and parochial schools have long been the target of state lawmakers, who have claimed the schools have competitive advantages over their public counterparts based on their ability to admit athletes from different counties, whereas students in public schools must attend solely based on geography. In 2021, N.C. House Republican John Bell publicly expressed his concerns about charter schools after watching a school in his district — Rosewood High — lose to Uwharrie Charter in the 1A state baseball finals in 2019.
While Floyd said she understands the point about parochial schools, she said it doesn’t apply to charter schools because they normally don’t have say over which students come into the school via the admission lottery.
The NCHSAA has been criticized for taking a neutral stance on the issue of charter schools, but several county athletic directors agreed that the association has been crucial in providing member schools guidance and regulations regarding the health and safety of their student athletes, coaches and administrators.
If passed, S.B. 636, which is currently being heard in committee, would prevent the NCHSAA from issuing monetary penalties to schools for rules violations and providing grants to schools or scholarships to players, unless the scholarships are funded by donor-directed funds. It would also ban the association from taking any gate money other than from state tournament games and require the NCHSAA to agree to annual audits.
Jason Amy, Seaforth’s athletic director who previously held the same position at Northwood, told the News + Record that the NCHSAA has done an admirable job governing high school sports across the state.
“It’s just like any athletic organization,” Amy said. “You’re not going to satisfy everybody, right? You’re going to have people who are going to be very happy with the way that things are, and you’re going to have other people who have different opinions. But ultimately the NCHSAA has been the guiding light for all of us in what we’re doing and they’ve given us good morals and principles to follow. To me, they’ve done a great job, honestly.”
Perhaps an unintended consequence of the legislation, S.B. 636 would also seemingly prevent girls playing traditionally boys sports like football and baseball. The language of the bill states that “sports designated for males shall not be open to students of the female sex unless there is no comparable female team for a particular sport and the sport is non-contact.”
There have been instances of several girls playing football at public high schools in North Carolina over the past decade. And in 2020, Providence Day’s Sydney McCorckle became the first female to play for an N.C. private school team.
“In football, if I’m able to be a kicker and can do it, why not?” Floyd said. “It’s the same with baseball. Some girls grew up just playing baseball and never have played softball. I think they should be given the opportunity if they want to.”
Vernon echoed that sentiment, and also said he believes the legislature is biting off more than it can chew when it comes to governing state-wide high school athletics.
“Just like anything else in life, we may not like every decision that is made, but it’s made to keep integrity in high school athletics,” he said. The NCHSAA is one of the most respected organizations in the country when it comes to high school athletics ... Politicians do not understand the scale to which the NCHSAA works with schools on a daily basis. I think they would take on a responsibility that they are not ready for.”
Sports Editor Jeremy Vernon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jbo_vernon.