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Reaching State Legislatures for Support of School-based Sports

By Juli Doshan on May 17, 2016 hst Print

In the Ohio state legislature sits a senator who has a unique perspective on issues facing high school sports and activities. Before he began advocating for student activity participants in Columbus, Cliff Hite spent three decades teaching and coaching high school football. When it comes to promoting a well-rounded student experience, the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) knows it has a friend in Hite.

“We are fortunate to have a close relationship with [Hite],” said Bob Goldring, OHSAA associate commissioner. “{He] is attuned to many athletic issues, is not afraid to contact us to ask questions and is always willing to hear our concerns.”

For those states that are not lucky enough to have a Coach Hite in their midst, finding support within the state capitol for school-based programs can prove to be challenging. In an attempt to garner that support, many state associations have developed best practices for developing and cultivating relationships with their respective representatives to gain respect and support.

Among the executive directors and other state administrators who have worked with their state legislatures, the consensus is that communication is vital to the state association’s relationship with the legislature.

“I think it is very important to create and maintain positive relations with legislators,” said Bobby Cox, commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA). “The IHSAA regularly communicates with legislators throughout the year. Personal written communications along with visitations appear to be most effective.”

Gary Musselman, executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA), said his is one of few associations that work directly with its legislature.

“I serve as our legislative relations contact and our staff collectively engages in monitoring legislative developments,” Musselman said. “Our efforts have focused on developing personal relationships with individual legislators who come from both parties and all geographic areas of our state.

“We understand being responsive to inquiries by legislators when they need help with a constituent’s question is a great opportunity to build a relationship and trust with that legislator.”

Many other states rely on a lobbyist to act as the liaison between the association and the legislature, but that doesn’t mean they let the lobbyist do all the work when it comes to developing relationships with the legislators.

“We have 181 state legislators,” said Jamey Harrison, deputy director of the Texas University Interscholastic League (UIL). “Most of them have my cell phone number so if they have a constituent issue, they have somebody to call and a first name.”

Matthew Gillespie, assistant executive director and former lobbyist for the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, said associations shouldn’t assume the mutual relationship would always primarily benefit the legislature either.

“They have been involved in regards to some positive legislation like our concussion policy,” Gillespie said. “They wanted to implement it as a state law after the fact that we had already developed a policy. It didn’t change anything for our member schools, but they looked to us as kind of a leader in that area.”

Furthermore, in situations where pending legislation may not positively impact the associations or schools, administrators can leverage those relationships immediately instead of starting from scratch.

“It’s always important that the legislator knows who those individuals are prior to any issues taking place,” said Robert Zayas, executive director of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA). “We also try to visit with legislators when there are no issues and I think that’s an important part of some of the strategy we’ve utilized – we meet with individuals when there are zero issues and then, that way, when there is an issue, we’re not coming to them for the very first time.”

State associations continually look for new and interesting ways to maintain that contact with their legislatures, other than just dropping by their offices, when there are no issues to work out.

“It is important to continually tell our story through diverse mediums about the values of participating in school-based activities,” Cox said. “My sense is that a critical study of what groups need to be targeted with this message is important and how best to communicate this.”

Harrison said he found that the legislators are generally most interested in a specific area so he lets their interests drive the communication. The UIL is currently working to develop a newsletter with information regarding that certain aspect of the association.

“We are working to improve some of those methods, especially in the areas of health and safety because they get so much attention,” Harrison said. “We try to send them a sort of newsletter with information related to health and safety measures we’ve taken so that they know what we’re doing in that particular area.”

The OHSAA has not only hired a lobbyist, but also a public affairs/public relations/government relations firm to assist in keeping a pulse on issues impacting its association.

“Legislators themselves and our firm have both suggested that our member school administrators do their best to keep state legislators ‘in the loop’ on various topics that impact their constituents,” Goldring said. “We have discussed in recent times the idea of periodically hosting a breakfast with key legislators where our staff and some allies would be able to share the value of school-based programs in an informal setting, and we would also reserve 15 minutes for our commissioner to speak on some key issues to help the legislators become more informed.”

Many administrators suggested that simply making the legislators aware of schools in their district participating in big events, like the state championships, could go a long way toward developing good relationships.

“One of the things that we started doing a couple of years ago was we send a memo making them aware of the New York state championships,” Zayas said. “We let them know if they’re interested in being part of the award ceremony to let us know. We’ve had a few legislators take us up on that, but more than anything else, they just appreciate the gesture.

“If a team wins a state championship, we send a letter to that legislator letting them know that a school in their constituent area has won a state championship. That has been very successful because now they’re able to recognize that team, it’s given them a heads-up and it also show that we’re very interested in helping them better serve their constituents.”

On the local level, the state offices rely on school administrators to cultivate even better relationships with their elected officials.

“[School administrators] are the boots on the ground,” Harrison said. “They are the folks who have those close, personal relationships. They have conversations and access more often than us at the state office.
“While we have great access and great opportunities to visit, it’s not the same as those folks at the local level in those particular legislative districts.”

Gillespie agreed and said that the school administrators can do more to take the mystery out of the association and its objectives than even the association itself.

“A lot of them have helped us in the past because they know their local state representative or local state senator,” Gillespie said. “That goes, a lot of times, a longer way than our relationship because they know those people.

“They look at us as just a big association sitting up here in this big office, but those are the people they deal with back in their district. Just the fact that they have a personal relationship with them is very important.”

While the state associations can invite the state legislators to attend the state championships, they suggested the school administrators could do the same during the regular season with rivalry games or other big events.

“We encourage all our school administrators to identify their senator and representatives and invite them to local school events to personally witness and support young people in their communities,” Cox said.

No matter how it’s done, the state associations said the best strategy in their arsenal was to educate their legislatures of the associations’ overall missions and why they do what they do every day. Many states provide research and data to prove that participation in an education-based sport or activity is beneficial to high school students.

“We believe it is vital for the KSHSAA to be a strong voice in making the case for the relevance and importance of school activity programs,” Musselman said. “Some of the strategies we have used to make the case for continued funding and support for school activity programs include cooperating in university research and publishing, in print and online, the data which demonstrates the academic benefits of participation for Kansas students.”

Goldring said the education of not only Ohio’s legislature, but its school administrators, coaches, parents, fans and participants, is something his association has been focused on recently.

“The OHSAA has developed an Outreach Committee that discusses best practices for educating various constituents on the values of school-based programs and plans for the future of the state association,” Goldring said. “Our state athletic administrators association is also very interested in becoming heavily involved in this initiative.”

In the end, Gillespie said the easiest thing to do is to remind the legislatures of the kids, and maybe of their own high school experience.

“It is education-based athletics – showing them the value of the student-athlete and their athletic participation,” Gillespie said. “It’s not just about state tournaments and crowning champions.”