The Legislature may try to impose some state control on the organization that oversees high school sports in Washington after a series of angry Bellevue residents accused it of racism, intimidation and harassment in a recent investigation.
“There has to be some government oversight,” Shelly Carlson, a Bellevue High School parent, who accused the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association of “using a hammer to squash a fly” in its investigation of rule violations at the school.
An investigation released last year by the WIAA and the Bellevue School District concluded that a few players were encouraged and given tuition assistance to attend an alternative school that made them eligible for sports at Bellevue High. Some also were given false addresses to make them eligible to play for Bellevue, and coaches were involved in improper recruiting.
For a series of violations listed in the report, the KingCo Conference banned the Bellevue football team from postseason play for four years, and imposed restrictions on donations of money and equipment from outside sources. Some coaches lost their jobs.
The postseason ban later was reduced to two years by the SeaKing District and approved by WIAA.
The investigators looked into 35 students, and all were African Americans, parents told the Senate Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee at a special meeting in Bellevue. Some were asked how they could afford the cars they were driving or how their parents could afford to live in Bellevue.
“Let’s be honest, this is a racism issue,” said James Hasty, a parent, high school football coach and former Washington State University and NFL player.
But officials from the WIAA later disputed that figure. John Miller, the organization’s assistant executive director, said the school couldn’t supply a list of transfer students because of privacy concerns so investigators made a list of athletes who were added to different sports one year when they hadn’t played previously. That list included both white and minority students, and they tried to talk to all students but some parents wouldn’t give their permission.
WIAA Executive Director Mike Colbrese said the association took seriously the allegations of racism, which first surfaced during the investigation. It made sure investigators were aware of the allegations and “watched it carefully.”
When families later asked the school district to investigate allegations of racism, the district found nothing, Colbrese said. A complaint was filed with the Office of Civil Rights; the WIAA responded in May but hasn’t heard anything since.
A group of parents also sued the WIAA on behalf of some students. That case was thrown out because a King County judge ruled it was a nonprofit organization, not a state agency, and the students didn’t have standing to sue because they were not part of the organization, attorney Marianne Jones said.
When they revised the claim to sue the investigators, another judge ruled WIAA was a branch of state government and threw out that case, she said. The Legislature should at least clear that up, she said.
The coaches who broke the rules are gone, but parents contended the students who didn’t break the rules, and new ones who weren’t even at the school when the violations occurred, are being punished unfairly by a shortened season and being barred from playoffs.
“Who’s being punished if we keep kids out of the playoffs who were not involved in the issue?” committee Chairman Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, asked.
It’s a dilemma, Colbrese agreed, but added: “How do you take care of (the violations and the people who created them) when they’re gone? And what about all the kids in all those other schools?”
A bill that passed the committee earlier this year, but never came to a vote in the full Senate, would require any change to WIAA rules, policies or amendments to be made available to the Legislature for public review on Jan. 1 of the year it would happen, and not take effect until the session is over.
That might not work, one parent said, because the school year is halfway over when the Legislature starts. Others suggested the WIAA get oversight from the state Board of Education or the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction so that people who disagree with the organization’s decisions could at least have their appeal heard by an outside source.
“There needs to be some type of governing body they answer to,” said Carlson, the mother of an athlete.
Baumgartner introduced the bill to allow legislative review of rule changes, and said others could be proposed next year. But there are limits to what lawmakers can, or should, do.
“The Legislature is not going to spend time running sports. It could make sure there’s an appeal process,” he said.