A GOP probe into the cash and culture of Friday Night Lights

Here’s something you might not know: Of the 58 board members who run the $4.7 million-a-year Georgia High School Association, which supervises athletics and other activities for 145,000 young men and 129,000 young women, only six are African-American. The rest are white.

Only four are women.

These are only a few of the statistics that have surfaced as the result of two Senate bills now plowing through the state Capitol. The bills aim to make the GHSA – a 110-year-old organization that operates in buildings and on fields largely built by taxpayers — become more transparent.

A pair of Republican spotlights, so to speak, trained on the cash and culture behind Friday Night Lights.

We may be about to witness the most important state intervention in the heady world of high school sports since 2000, when House Speaker Tom Murphy set the precedent – upset that his local public high school in the tiny town of Bremen was being forced to compete against wealthy private schools.

One current measure, S.B. 288, is the work of Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, who is Gov. Nathan Deal’s Senate floor leader. It would require the GHSA – which is already subject to state open records and open meeting laws — to annually report “its assets, liabilities, income, and operating expenses.”

Days after the bill was introduced, the GHSA posted two years of audits on its website, showing revenues of $4.7 million in 2013, up from $4 million in 2012. Fifty-seven percent of the GHSA’s budget comes from playoffs. The organization gets between 5 and 12 percent of the gate.

You’ll be happy to know that, even in a struggling economy, football revenue increased a delightful 27 percent to $1.3 million in 2013.

Which has many state lawmakers wondering why their constituents had to pay $20 each to see their kids participate in the Georgia Dome playoffs last year.

But motives behind the two Senate bills vary. Bethel wants to know where the money is going – as do school superintendents across the state, many of whom have lent their quiet support to S.B. 288.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, is more concerned that, five decades after Congress passed civil rights legislation, and 42 years after federal Title IX requirements opened athletics to young women, high school sports in Georgia is still governed almost solely by white men.

“If you’re a football player, and you’re on the field playing, and you’re African-American, but yet you know you’re controlled by all these white people – I mean, where is the mentoring and the role-modeling? It just doesn’t seem fair,” Unterman said. “It’s an executive men’s club. And I’ve got a problem with that.”

Unterman wants to renew legislative oversight of the GHSA, which expired four years ago.

S.B. 288 passed the Senate early this month. Another measure, S.B. 343, had its first committee hearing delayed by last week’s ice storm. But its sponsor is Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who is chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee. So traction is guaranteed.

Mullis’ bill is more severe, and would rework GHSA’s governance – by requiring that members of its boards of trustees and executive committee be employed by a local school system or private school. Several members of the GHSA hierarchy would be ousted.

Mullis’ interest? Gordon Lee High School, in the small city of Chickamauga in north Georgia, was recently reclassified and now must compete with larger schools – a reminder that the GHSA can have as much impact in local communities as city councils and county commissions.

The GHSA is a “self-perpetuating club,” Mullis said. “Small schools don’t have much influence there, and I want them to be heard.”

On the receiving end of all this criticism is Ralph Swearngin, the longtime GHSA executive director who will retire this year.

”We have a history of being conciliatory with the Legislature, trying to find some common ground in the middle,” said Swearngin. “But by the same token, we also feel like the governance of a private association really ought to be left with the people who are part of it.”

Swearngin confirmed the demographics of the GHSA board, but pointed out that 48 of the 58 on the board are selected by schools across the state.

Part of the suspicion of the GHSA, he theorized, comes from local school superintendents who are no longer coming from the ranks of high school coaches – as was once the case.

“We’re finding more and more administrators who are coming into their new positions without any background in athletics,” Swearngin said. “Consequently, there’s been a bit of disengagement, where they’ve passed along those responsibilities to athletic directors and coaches.”

The GHSA head is willing to accept renewed legislative oversight – but said that, last time, lawmakers eventually lost interest. “It met twice the first year, once the second year, and then it never met again,” he said.

But in the immediate future, legislative concerns are likely to remain high. State Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, chairman of the House Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight Committee, has promised a friendly reception for the two Senate bills.

“So much of the money is generated by public assets. An open process does them nothing but good if there’s nothing to hide,” he said.

And about those ticket prices. “I am convinced that $5 is enough if it’s on school property,” Martin said.