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Where They All Began

By Tim Stevens, 05/09/13, 11:45AM EDT



A common link for many of the members of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame is that they participated in interscholastic athletics in the Old North State. Players such as David Thompson, Bobby Jones, Bob McAdoo, Jim Beatty, Kathy McMillian, Carlester Crumpler, Catfish Hunter, Carl Eller, Meadowlark Lemon, Danny Talbott, Genia Beasley and Roman Gabriel honed their athletic skills and developed life skills in high school gyms and on fields and tracks in small communities and major cities through the state.

Coaches and teachers such as Dave Harris, Lee Stone, Harvey Reid, Leon Brogden, Bob Jamieson, Henry Trevathan and Russell Blunt led young men and women from adolescence to adulthood. The coaches’ goal was simple: build better people. Robert F. Kanaby, the former director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, phrased it, “Create better citizens to function in our democracy.”

From the earliest days of interscholastic competition in North Carolina, the goal has been to teach life skills. The players have fun and compete, but the overarching goal is to teach integrity, sportsmanship, teamwork, responsibility, dedication, community and self-sacrifice. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association has done that for 100 years and is celebrating its centennial this year. The association traces its origin back to 1913 when the University of North Carolina, through its extension service, helped organize the first statewide high school competition, a state track meet. A football championship game was held the next year and more sports were gradually added.

High school competition in the state has always reflected the state’s culture. Competition was segregated by race and for years there were very limited opportunities for girls to compete on the statewide level and no NCHSAA championships for girls. The North Carolina General Assembly at one point forbade any competition for girls beyond the county level.

The story of the NCHSAA is changing with society, often leading. Kanaby, the former national high school leader, says the untold story of integration of schools in the nation is athletics. Charlie Adams, the former executive director of the NCHSAA, says he hates to think of the turmoil that would have taken place during integration without athletics. “Kids got to know other kids and to compete with them,” Adams says. “In many cases these were the student leaders in the schools.” 

Integration was a major change for high school athletics in North Carolina. Children taught their parents how to cheer for and support the children of a different race. Athletic fields gradually became an incubator of respect for one another. Coaches like to win and they want to put their best team in the game, regardless of ethnicity, religious beliefs or socio-economic status. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it helped during a turbulent time.

Creating an opportunity for girls was the next big step. Girls’ high school basketball flourished for a time in North Carolina, often attracting more spectators than the boys’ games, but girls’ basketball in urban areas almost completely disappeared by the 1960s. In the late 1960s, there were no state girls’ championships, but by 1976 – after the advent of Title IX – there were championships in golf, tennis, basketball, track, swimming, softball and volleyball. “We actually wanted to have girls’ championships long before we did,” Adams says. “But our schools didn’t have girls’ teams. You couldn’t have a state championship if you didn’t have any teams.”

The NCHSAA blossomed under the leadership of Adams. One of his goals was to move state championship events to major college facilities. The move not only ensured a neutral site but also created the memory of a lifetime for the players. One prerequisite of the move was corporate involvement, and the NCHSAA remains a national leader in corporate support. As education has changed in North Carolina, so has athletic competition. The days of the small local school are fading as most communities move to large consolidated schools. There are opportunities to now attend traditional, charter, virtual, year-round, private, parochial and other types of schools. Students often can pick their school, a factor in some schools dominating competition in specific sports. Athletics can attract athletes even from other states, and in recent years school athletic dynasties have dominated competition. Schools with a higher socioeconomic base are much more likely to win an NCHSAA championship than a school with fewer resources.

The most recent challenge is another cultural shift. The NCHSAA was founded on the precept of teaching values, but there is a growing pursuit of athletic scholarship dollars. Growing numbers of parents are selecting club programs rather than interscholastic competition. “There are 11 million boys and girls in our country who participate in interscholastic athletics,” Kanaby says. “A very small percentage will ever step foot in collegiate competition and fewer will receive athletic scholarships. As a society, North Carolina, and the rest of our nation, has to decide if we are going to design our interscholastic competition for the few or for the multitude.”

Davis Whitfield, the NCHSAA commissioner, says there is no doubt that the state association will choose to teach values. “Now, perhaps more than ever before, what we do best is greatly needed,” he says. 

Tim Stevens

Tim Stevens

Tim Stevens is an award-winning high school sports writer and columnist for the News & Observer of Raleigh whose career has spanned multiple decades