Update: GHSA grants Wheeler permission to play in national basketball tournament

Updated with the GHSA's official statement below.

Fearing that it might be breaking a state law if it stood in the way, the Georgia High School Association went against its bylaws on Wednesday and granted Wheeler’s boys basketball team special permission to play in national tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York next month.

Give credit to a former all-state football player named Justin ''Bean" Anderson for the block that cleared the way.

The GHSA’s bylaws forbid sports teams from playing in national-championship events or any games after the Georgia season is complete. Wheeler parents and fans began a petition that garnered grass-roots support to press the GHSA for an exception.

But the game-changer was not that, but a state law enacted in 2006 that came about after Anderson, formerly of Irwin County, lost his eligibility for playing in a national all-star game because of a GHSA bylaw that forbid it.

The law - the threat of which brought about a change in the GHSA bylaws in 2006 - reads: '' ... a student shall not lose eligibility to participate as a team member on an interscholastic sports team solely because such student participates during the school year at any time outside of regular season, including playoffs, in a national competitive event, such as an all-star or showcase event, that is not sanctioned by such athletic association."

In the Wheeler case, GHSA executive director Gary Phillips consulted the association's attorneys and polled the GHSA's board of trustees, and the decision was to approve Wheeler's trip. The trustees voted 6-3 in favor of Wheeler.

GHSA associate director Ernie Yarbrough, who also oversees basketball, explained the thought process and said the issue almost certainly would come back up on April 13, when the GHSA's bylaw-making executive committee meets.

‘’We know this [GHSA] bylaw was something established long time ago, and we also understand there is state law that aligns closely with this, so [it was decided] let’s take a step back, take a deep breath and go ahead allow this  to take place,’’ Yarbrough said. “But in April, we’ve got to take a close look at this and decide whether to keep it in place, adjust it or get rid of it. It’s certainly going to be a hot topic.’’

The basketball tournament, called the Dick’s Sporting Goods National Invitational, will be played April 2-4. The field will include the eight highest-ranked teams available from the final USA Today rankings. Wheeler, Georgia’s Class AAAAAA champion, moved up to No. 6 this week and has a victory this season against No. 2 Monteverde Academy of Florida, the 2014 champion of the New York tournament.

According to Dick’s Nationals media spokesperson Robin Kelner, only three state associations previously have granted teams permission for their teams to play. Those are the FHSAA (Florida), WIAA (Washington) and UHSAA (Utah), Kelner said.

Other associations that govern private schools and some independent private schools, such as famed Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, have participated.

Official GHSA statement:

The Georgia High School Association’s Board of Trustees voted 6-3 on Wednesday to grant a special waiver of a by-law preventing teams from playing in a national tournament. The decision clears the way for Wheeler High School to accept an invitation for its boys basketball team to play in a national tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York next month.

GHSA Executive Director Gary Phillips originally informed the Cobb County school that it could not accept the invitation, which came after Wheeler captured the class AAAAAA championship last Saturday night with a 59-58 win over Pebblebrook. That decision, at the urging of the Georgia Legislature, was reconsidered and a special waiver granted to allow Wheeler to participate in the tournament.

Currrent GHSA by-law 2.64 (a) (2) provides that “Approval will not be granted for any tournament, meet, or other contest to qualify for and/or determine a national high school championship.” That by-law is not in conflict with O.C.G.A. Section 20-2-316.1(b) which allows individual students to participate in out-of-season all-star contests and is not applicable to the current situation involving the Wheeler invitation.

However, the GHSA recognizes that participation by its member schools in legitimate nationally recognized tournaments held after the season has ended may be appropriate in some instances, and the GHSA Executive Committee will take up that issue at its spring meeting on April 13 and attempt to formulate a mechanism for such contests to be considered for approval by the GHSA.

That meeting would have been too late to help Wheeler, so Phillips convened an emergency conference call with the nine-member Board of Trustees late Wednesday afternoon. After the vote came back in favor of a waiver, Phillips informed Wheeler school officials of the decision early Wednesday evening.

“We felt this was a special case and, as such, deserved consideration for a waiver,” said Phillips.

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