Anson County has no movie theaters, no bowling alleys, no industrial plant to support its 25,000 residents. The only Walmart closed more than a year ago, crippling the county where one in ten residents don't have a car. As Todd Johnson, an insurance agent who graduated from high school there puts it, “High school football is all they have. They literally have nothing else.”

In August of 2019, Anson played its longtime rival, the Richmond Raiders, in a non-conference game. Anson High has fewer than 800 students. Richmond has roughly twice that. With a minute left in the second quarter, and Anson down 33-0, the Bearcats’ QB rolled right, taking his offensive tackle with him. Pushing and shoving between the teams ensued, and fists flew after the whistle. As both sidelines spilled onto the field, two fighting players were ejected and the game was canceled.

A week later, Anson received word that a further review had led to two more of its players being penalized for “coming onto the playing area during a fight (whether they participate or not).” Besides being fined $1,000, the Bearcats would be placed on probation and banned from the postseason. The ruling came from the agency that governs such things, the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

Anson’s coach, who received a formal reprimand, chose not to tell his team and the school chose not to make it public—until the Bearcats went undefeated in conference play and thought they were heading to the playoffs. The news that they weren’t going crushed them.

Todd Johnson also happens to be a state senator. And after the postseason ban became public, his cell phone started buzzing. The NCHSAA’s rules allow 48 hours for an appeal. But Anson didn’t have the manpower to file one and its deadline passed. Johnson was livid; he felt his alma mater was being penalized for being poor.

He wasn’t the only one getting an earful. Tom McInnis, a state senator who represents Anson and Richmond counties, was also hearing from constituents. A former auctioneer with an abiding faith in his ability to persuade, McInnis asked Johnson to sit in while he called the association.

“A lot of these kids are from broken homes,” McInnis recalls telling its commissioner, Marilyn “Que” Tucker. “This is their last chance to be seen by scouts and maybe get the college education they can’t afford.”

Tucker was confused. The appeal deadline passed two months earlier and they were just calling now? “Sir,” she replied after hearing him out. “I just can’t do that.”

That brief conversation over a non-conference football game has since mushroomed into a two-year probe that is turning the once obscure association inside-out. The group touches every aspect of high school sports in the postseason—from the rules it imposes, to vendors it recommends, to fines it levies.

It’s also a money-making machine, taking in about $6 million a year and returning an average of around $1.4 million to member schools under a revenue sharing formula that accounts for its expenses, according to Tucker’s recent legislative testimony. What raises eyebrows the most, however, is its $41 million in assets—a war-chest that rivals the Atlantic Coast Conference and makes the group the wealthiest high school athletic association in the nation.

That endowment is the focus of a bill now winding its way through the General Assembly that seeks to end what critics say is an endless cycle of overcharging and underfunding North Carolina’s schools. It would place the association under the Board of Education and give it what critics say is a much-needed dose of accountability. 

“If you dig around, you’ll find plenty of people who don’t like the association’s rules,” says A.L. “Buddy” Collins, a Kernersville attorney who studied the group as a former member of the state Board of Education. “But you find that in any agency. What you don’t find [elsewhere] is the lack of public accountability you see here.”

Defenders are decrying what they call a senseless attack on an indispensable institution. “You can say they have too much money, but they haven’t been irresponsible with it,” says Davis Whitfield, a commissioner from 2010-15. “Their endowment provides stability that doesn’t exist in other states.” 

Even Gov. Roy Cooper, who is expected to receive the legislation by month’s end, has weighed in, tweaking its Republican sponsors by saying they’re trying to take sports “out of the private sector and put it into government.”

But all agree on one thing: Where the high school association ends up is less important than what happens to its $41 million, and the machine that’s been built to protect it.

 ***

Most high school sports limp along on shoestring budgets. On February 25, for example, the Reidsville Rams and Kinston Vikings met in a Class 2-A state tournament basketball game. The game was a nail-biter, with the Rams leading by 3 in the third quarter. A furious fourth saw both teams trading buckets, and by the time the clock ticked down the Rams had eked out a 60-57 win.

Afterwards, the athletic director at Kinston went into the NCHSAA portal to enter what’s known as a “playoff finance report.” The first thing he listed was a $500 fee that the school collected for its streaming rights and had to pass onto the NCHSAA. As the portal clearly noted, “Not part of revenue split. NCHSAA to receive all for this item.”

Next, he listed $245 in ticket revenue (at seven bucks a ticket) and $240 in expenses to pay the refs. After the NCHSAA’s media rights fee was deducted, the schools had $5 left to split.

Those results are depressingly common in low-revenue sports like basketball, softball and track. But that’s not where the athletic association makes most of its revenue. The real moneymaker is playoff football.

An athletic director who asked for anonymity to discuss financials led The Assembly through a hypothetical playoff game where 3,000 tickets get sold for $7 each. Off the top, he’d have to pay the association an endowment surcharge of $1 for each ticket sold, followed by 15 percent of what’s left. If he sold out the stadium, he calculates the NCHSAA would charge him $5,700 “just to play.”

After that, he’d split the remaining $15,300 with his opponent. But the home team also pays for officials, security, ticket takers and other expenses. On a good day, he figures he’d bank $5,000—not nothing, but also not enough to help upgrade the 1960s-era arena his basketball team plays in or buy equipment for his lower-revenue sports.

Moreover, the cut taken by the NCHSAA goes up the farther a team goes in the playoffs—to 60 percent for a championship game. The athletic director remembers a season where he sent the NCHSAA a check for roughly $12,000 and the association’s finance committee, which meets twice annually, sent him an $8,000 revenue sharing rebate. The rest was kept for NCHSAA expenses and its endowment. 

The athletic director says he supports the NCHSAA because “if you think it’s really bad now, just wait to see how bad it can get with someone else.” But he also adds: “I feel like it’s lost touch with our reality.”

A dozen years ago, no one regarded the high school sports association as a voracious giant. On the contrary, it was an obscure regulator housed on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill with a folksy leader, Charlie Adams, who saw high school kids as his calling, and worthy of big rewards. He started state championships for young women, moved major events into college venues, and created an endowment to make sure that North Carolina’s kids would always have a postseason, even in lean times.

All went smoothly until a 2009 state audit showed Adams had been paying his staff “longevity” bonuses ranging from $853 to $8,557—not a headline scandal, but a violation of university policy. Adams retired and the group moved into new offices in Chapel Hill under the direction of Whitfield, then an associate commissioner at the ACC.

In 2015, Buddy Collins, the Kernersville attorney, was named to the state board of education, the body that helps govern K-12 education. He discovered what had been overlooked for years: that the state board has authority to oversee the association. When he pressed the issue, Collins says his colleagues on the state board didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken. Whitfield recalls having “numerous meetings with Buddy.” As he puts it, “The oversight was always there, but the other side chose not to get involved.”

When Whitfield left for the National Federation of State High School Associations that year, it was Tucker’s turn to take over.

The 68-year-old is a no-nonsense executive with a strong sense of her own history. She credits her mother, a public-school teacher, with leading her to education, and her father, who owned his own shoe repair business, with her “entrepreneurial spirit.” She played high school basketball in her native Reidsville, then went onto degrees in health and physical education. A 20-year career as a basketball and volleyball coach in junior and high schools eventually brought her to N.C. State University, where she worked under the legendary coach Kay Yow. There, she says, “I learned that big business basketball was not where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.”

In 1991, after three years at N.C. State, Tucker got hired at the association to be a student services advisor, and she’s been there since. Says Whitfield, “Que has always been our backbone.”

 ***

Tucker may not have liked the big money world of college hoops but her tenure has been marked by an unquestionable expansion of the high school game.

Consider the girls’ basketball game that was held at South Iredell High School on Jan. 15. West Rowan High School was the visiting team, and the head of its booster club, Jimmy Greene, decided to ride along. As he’d done throughout the pandemic, Greene took out his iPad and began to stream on Facebook Live for the parents who couldn’t attend. Suddenly, a South Iredell official walked over and told him he’d have to stop. The streaming rights to the game were controlled by an Indiana company called NFHS Network. Any parent who wanted to see the game had to sign up for an account with the network and pay a $10.99 monthly fee.

Greene was stunned. “If you told me parents had to sign up and could watch free after that, okay,” he says. He was appalled they had to be charged.

Paying for what was once free isn’t new. In this case, it’s the result of an expansion into video rights by the National Federation of State High School Associations, which is the parent organization of the NCHSAA. 

The national federation strikes deals with schools like South Iredell during the regular season that give them a cut of every subscription. But the postseason is fully owned by the state association. In 2017, North Carolina’s streaming rights were sold to the NFHS Network for $80,000 annually—money that will come directly to the NCHSAA. In return, parents now have to pay to stream their kids’ games.

Mark Koski, CEO of the network, defends his product, saying it’s perfect for traveling parents and grandparents who can’t make it to games. (He also says the South Iredell official was mistaken; there’s no rule preventing visiting parents from streaming.) And, to be sure, it’s nice to have access to events from 9,000 schools nationwide if you’re a high school sports junkie.

But it’s a hard sell if you’re quarantining and just want to see one game. And the idea that schools will benefit from the $80,000 that the NCHSAA gets paid is belied by how little the association actually distributes to individual schools .

 ***

As they dug deeper, Sens. McInnis and Johnson, along with a third Republican Senator who’d joined the inquiry, Vickie Sawyer, asked Tucker to visit the General Assembly. Although she arrived with two lobbyists, Tucker told The Assembly that she was “blindsided” to find ten years’ worth of her group’s public tax filings spread out on a pair of conference tables. At one point during the meeting, McInnis recalls Tucker grabbing a handful of forms and flinging them at him. Tucker disputes that, saying that she merely slapped a manila folder on the table in frustration.

But all agree the session didn’t go particularly well.

The senators resolved to plow further into the association’s spending practices. One district that drew their interest was in Scotland County, which ranks 110 out of 118 school districts in median income. From 2015 to 2020, the district paid the NCHSAA $83,252 and received just $31,724 back through the association’s revenue share, a net loss of $51,528.

“Many of these schools are rural and poor, and you got the mom selling popcorn on Friday night and the kids doing car washes on Saturday morning,” McInnis told The Assembly. When he saw Scotland County’s numbers, he says, “I blew my stack.”

It’s worth hitting pause to unpack how, exactly, the association distributes its funds. Broadly speaking, its board puts its annual investment income and operating profit into a big pot, and then distributes shares to its 427 member schools. Frankly, I’ve tried to understand how the formula works, but it’s a little like figuring out cryptocurrency. The bottom line seems to be that the farther you go in the postseason, the larger share you get. As Tra Waters, an assistant commissioner, explains: “If it seems like successful schools are making more money, it was set up that way because they’re playing their sport for a month and a half longer.” 

Moreover, Waters points out, Scotland County profited handsomely from two years where its Scotland High football team played in back-to-back 4A championships. According to the NCHSAA’s in-house numbers, those appearances helped bring its haul from 2015-20 to $140,364. “That money never came through our office,” says Waters.

The question bothering lawmakers is why the NCHSAA should “own” the postseason at all. According to a recent survey of athletic directors by HighSchoolOT.com, the vast majority — 86 percent of the 230 who responded — oppose legislation to dissolve or drastically change the group. But some educators have started wondering why they need to beg for money that is supposed to be theirs. (The NCHSAA’s board is ostensibly elected by its member schools, although critics say it is self-selecting.)

"The athletic association could have supported us more during the pandemic when we didn’t have a lot of revenue coming in,” the superintendent of Richmond County schools, Dr. Jeffrey Maples, told The Assembly.

Richmond County fared even worse than Scotland County in the revenue share round-robin. It paid the NCHSAA $65,850 from 2016 to 2020 but got only $12,932 back. "I think a lot of districts felt the same way," Maples says. "Help us stop the bleeding. I mean, if not then, when? And to find out they have all that money …”

At least initially, Tucker was wary about revealing too many details about that money. When the senators asked her how much of the endowment was unencumbered—meaning free for the association to use however it wants, she replied in a letter: “As a private membership organization, the Association respectfully declines providing this information.” (The number turns out to be $24 million.)

By April, the relationship between Tucker and her inquisitors was toxic. Asked to testify about a bill Sawyer drafted to require the group to undergo regular audits, Tucker was by turns assured and annoyed. At her most exasperated, she said, “In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d be sitting in front of you trying to defend the fact we have money.”

But why, the senators wanted to know, does it need so much?

Alabama provides an apt comparison. The athletic association governs 412 schools, just nine fewer than North Carolina, and doesn’t charge the one-dollar-per-student membership dues that North Carolina does. According to Steve Savarese, who recently retired as the AHSAA’s director, “It's one of those jobs where you have to have a great support staff, because with the comprehensiveness of the job, you just can't do it by yourself. You've got to have great people in your organization.”

In 2009, his association started taking in more revenue than it spent. But instead of keeping its profits, Savarese began a revenue-sharing program. Today, Alabama sends roughly $2 million a year to its schools, including the smaller ones that don’t produce any playoff ticket revenue. “It’s about keeping a small-town track or baseball program going,” he says.

The NCHSAA has traditionally returned less than Alabama despite netting ten times more investment revenue. So last November, Sawyer wrote to Tucker with “urgency,” begging her to release more money to help schools that weren’t generating any revenue from ticket sales in the height of the pandemic. Three weeks later, the group released $4 million, claiming it had intended to do so all along. But its closed meetings, and papal-like secrecy, satisfied no one. 

***

As I sat in his office, McInnis thumbed through five pages in the NCHSAA’s handbook devoted to fines that range from $100 to $1,000. Much has to do with player welfare, like the rule preventing pitchers from throwing more than 12 innings over three days, or a requirement mandating a course on concussions. There are also endless rules governing forms, procedures, and eligibility.

The athletic director who asked to not be identified says he supports fines. He brings up the case of the fight at the Anson game to say, “Unless you do something to discourage fighting, I’m going to have to spend money on my next game on extra security.”

But the fines—which totaled $76,000 last year—have become a flash point. Sen. Sawyer showed me an email she received from a retired athletic director. “There are a lot of people afraid to speak out too much from fear of retribution from the association,” the director wrote. “We appreciate you being our voice.”

There’s no more withering critic of the high school association’s closed culture than Bill Nolte, the superintendent of Haywood County schools.

Nolte’s long-running feud stems from a decision the association made in 2016 to realign its conferences. Tuscola High, a medium-sized school that played in Class 2-A, was especially impacted. It was moved up to 3A, alongside Asheville-area powerhouses like TC Roberson, which had a third more students. Worse, Tuscola’s traditional rival, Pisgah High, was placed in a new 2A grouping, which meant the teams couldn’t meet in the postseason.

Nolte called Tucker, wrote letters, and asked in the nicest way he could for his schools to be put back in the same division. When no action was taken, he began asking in ways that weren’t so nice. He joined an appeal with three other school districts to realign the conference and when that failed, wrote a letter that accused Tucker of “continued arbitrary and capricious actions designed to manipulate the classification process.”

This spring, the NCHSAA unveiled a new districting plan that could be seen as an acknowledgment of its error. It places Tuscola and Pisgah back in the same 2A conference.

Some might see it as a routine disagreement for a 400-plus member body. But, as Nolte told The Assembly, “No one said, ‘We didn’t get it right, Bill.’ Or ‘We should have given you a grievance procedure, Bill.’ No one has done anything to address the core problem.”

The sheer mountain of paperwork that Nolte filed in his four-year battle with the NCHSAA mirrors the frustration that the GOP senators say they felt while investigating it.

In April, Johnson, McInnis, and Sawyer vented that frustration with a bill that would have dissolved the group and start over with a new panel of appointees. It was the equivalent of a legislative temper tantrum designed to get Tucker’s attention—and it worked.

Suddenly, the NCHSAA was having meetings with members, issuing press releases, and telling everyone about its newfound focus on giving back. It formed an endowment advisory committee to find new ways to release money (including an additional $1.7 million as of this month), started holding regional “listening” sessions with members, and even offered to start covering costs of a half million dollar catastrophic insurance policy.

What didn’t happen—and apparently won’t happen—is the demise of the NCHSAA. 

***

In an interview with The Assembly, Tucker repeatedly referred to the senate inquiry as accusatory and unfair — a sentiment that’s been echoed in the press. “First it was the endowment,” she said. “Then the fines. Then it went to oversight. The whole thing started to mushroom.” At one point, she questioned whether Whitfield or Adams would have received the same treatment. “Do I have moments where I wonder if this would be happening if they were in my chair?” she asks. “Yes, I do.”

Tucker’s deepest suspicions over the scrutiny she’s received involve the way her association has handled the pandemic.

High school associations nationwide are caught in impossible situations. Last year, the GOP-led legislature in Louisiana passed a bill to water down its association after the group made a COVID-related decision to delay football season. The move was seen as an end-run around a democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, who supports mask mandates. This year, the head of the association refused to endorse vaccines and vowed to penalize any team that forfeits due to COVID reasons.

In 2020, the NCHSAA mounted a different sort of aggressive response. It canceled the state basketball championship and spring sports, leaving seniors without their final seasons. Last fall, it continued with caution, voting to delay football until February and enforce the mask mandates outlined by Gov. Cooper. “We didn’t have a choice,” Tucker says. “But a lot of people acted as if it was my fault.”

She notes that Johnson and McInnis made their first appeal to her in October 2019 but didn’t unveil a bill for 18 months. “I think the positions we took during the pandemic made the legislation a lot more intense,” she says. That intensity poured out of another version of the bill introduced in September. This one tried to defang the NCHSAA rather than dissolve it by banning it from issuing fines and putting a 33 percent cap on the net amount it can take from any tournament game.

The bill passed the senate 28-14, with only one Democratic vote. One of the Democrats who switched to no, Sarah Crawford of Franklin County, said she feared what would happen if the GOP used its toehold in the association as a cudgel in culture war fights—like the future of transgender athletes. “Part of the conversation now is about conversations to come in the future,” she told The Assembly.

Tucker, meanwhile, has been offering a stream of worst-case scenarios. She told me that by reducing the association’s revenue, the legislature would impact the ability to hold championships in college venues.

But it’s not clear that would happen. And reasonable people can differ about whether needy school districts should be helping to pay for wealthier ones to play in elaborate stadiums.

The question is balance.

How big should a high school sports association get?

On Sept. 22, the majority leader of the House, John Bell, called all the major players together to hash out an answer. Those present included the vice chairman of the Board of Education, Alan Duncan, and a pair of aides to Gov. Cooper. The senators who’d started the ball rolling—McInnis, Johnson, and Sawyer—attended in person, along with Tucker. Two of her board members were there via Zoom.

Without the histrionics that marked their prior dealings, the group agreed to coalesce around a more modest version of House Bill 91. This one will replace the small-bore, micro-managing language of its predecessors with a loftier call for transparency. The thorniest issues, like what to do about fines and fees, will get punted to the Board of Education, which is now charged with negotiating an explicit memorandum of understanding with the association. “Instead of being proscriptive, we brought it up to a higher level,” Sawyer told The Assembly, attempting to elevate what has been, at least to now, a messy personal fight.

Say what you will about legislators’ motives —something, we’ll likely be hearing more about as the culture wars rage, and high school associations get forced into ever tighter corners. The scrutiny did bring results.

The NCHSAA has authorized an additional $5.7 million to its members since November. And a debate is starting about what it means to “own” the postseason. It’s a debate that may even reach the national high school athletics organization, which often seems a little too eager to be like its big-business cousin, the NCAA, which it shares office space with in Indianapolis.

While he was at home playing with his grandkids in Alabama, I asked the recently retired Savarese how he’d describe the job of a high school sports association.

“We work for all of our members, our school administrators, athletic directors, and coaches,” he said. “We work with them, and we serve them in every capacity. We listen to what their needs are. And once we establish what their needs are, our job is to provide them resources to be able to do their job at their level. Because the byproduct is our student athletes.”

He made it all sound so simple.

***

Shaun Assael spent two decades as a senior writer with ESPN Magazine and as a member of the network’s investigations team. He was an executive producer of Pariah, the Showtime documentary based on his book, The Murder of Sonny Liston.

Update 9/30: Terminology around high school athletic classifications was changed; they're called classes, not divisions as previously written.