High School Athletic Associations

State high school athletic associations are in most instances nonprofit organizations that act as governing bodies of athletic programs for junior and senior high schools. As part of this role, they are responsible for arranging high school competitions and establishing policies and practices for athletic directors, coaches, and student athletes. This entry provides an overview of such groups and the issues they face.

What Associations Do

High school athletic associations are governed by boards of directors and executive committees that include building principals, district superintendents, athletic directors, and officials. High school athletic associations often provide regulatory oversight for and sanction interschool sporting events among member schools and sustain communications to encourage good relationships among members. At the same time, they may set qualifications and eligibility standards for young athletes, their coaches, and officials and protect participants from exploitation. They also may cooperate with other agencies involved in ensuring the health and educational well-being of high school students. Their overall goal is to improve the quality of school sports programs and their administration.

Membership in these associations is made up of accredited public and private schools. Nationally, most high school athletic associations offer school level membership; in some cases and similar to the NCAA, state athletic organizations offer different categories of membership. For example, Michigan’s Interscholastic Athletic Association offers four types of membership: active membership, associate membership, honorary membership, and life membership.

In some states, a more broadly focused state-level organization acts as a point of contact and regulatory body for the multiple athletic and academic associations in the state, while also sponsoring individual policy and rules committees focused on each of the sanctioned sports and academic competitions. Two examples of this are found in Missouri and Maine. In Missouri, the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA) offers information and links for the various state-level coaches and directors associations, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and other state and related associations, as well as hosting standing advisory committees for the various sanctioned sports, academic competitions, and state-level initiatives. In Maine, the Maine Principals Association (MPA) offers general information about school athletic activities through one of two distinct divisions. The interscholastic division focuses on sports, music, science, and speech and debate competitions, while the professional division focuses on educational leadership for school principals, curriculum directors, supervision and evaluation, and the professional development of school leaders.

National High School Associations

In many cases, state high school athletic organizations are able to join national organizations focused broadly on high school activities. One example is the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). Membership in the NFHS includes the 50 state high school athletic/activity associations, plus the District of Columbia. The NFHS also provides affiliate athletic/ activity memberships for individuals—for example, coaches associations or speech and debate associations. The NFHS provides leadership for the administration of education-based interscholastic activities. According to its Web site and printed materials, the NFHS is recognized as a national authority in the areas of interscholastic activity programs and on the development and interpretation of competition rules for interscholastic activity programs. The NFHS also publishes rules for boys’ and girls’ competition in 16 sports and administers fine arts programs in speech, theater, debate, and music.

National- and state-level high school athletic associations are an important influence in shaping secondary athletics. These may suggest rules and policies to cover everything from athletic eligibility to drug testing, athletic injury, and officiating. A look at three recent issues helps to describe the authority of the high school athletic associations.

Academic Eligibility. In 1906, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) began requiring incoming college students to meet eligibility requirements to compete as freshman athletes. Although the specifics have changed, the primary goal of these requirements is to ensure that student athletes are academically prepared to achieve an appropriate balance between college course work and athletic competition. Recently, the NCAAmade efforts to include the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the NFHS in revising the initial eligibility process. Some of the changes in policies and procedures now permit high school principals to identify courses that meet the NCAA’s core curriculum. Previously, these decisions were made by college academic committees. This change also takes into account “nontraditional” instructional methods such as courses taught over the Internet, independent study, distance learning, and correspondence courses. These revisions provide more latitude in selecting courses that demonstrate students’ abilities to succeed academically during their first year in higher education. The collaboration between the NCAA, NAASP, and NFHS has strengthened the understanding of the changing high school curriculum, collegiate expectations, and the commonly approved standards required of students to compete in collegiate athletics during their initial year in college.

Title IX. In 1975, Congress approved Title IX Educational Amendments of 1972 in the area of athletics. High schools and colleges were given 3 years and elementary schools 1 year to comply. In 1976, the NCAA challenged the legality of Title IX, and 2 years later, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued a formal policy on Title IX and intercollegiate athletics for notice and comment. High schools and colleges were given until July 21, 1978, to have policies and practices in place that complied with Title IX athletic requirements.

Fundamentally, Title IX requires educational institutions to ensure that policies, practices, and programs do not discriminate against anyone based on sex. Young men and women are expected to receive fair and equal treatment in all arenas of public schooling: educational programs and activities, course offerings and access, sexual harassment, and athletics.

Americans with Disabilities Act. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has greatly influenced access to athletic facilities. However, Title II of the ADA, based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, has been the subject of litigation in several states (e.g., New York, Missouri, Michigan, and West Virginia). The object of this litigation was not only to permit more than access to arenas but also to throw open the doors to athletic participation. Scholars reviewing the implications for high school athletics conclude that the courts have interpreted Section 504 to allow handicapped individuals to participate fully in activities without “paternalistic authorities” deciding that certain events may be too risky. This dynamic resulted from the Supreme Court’s interpretation of “reasonable accommodation” in Alexander v. Choate (1985), in which the Court attempted to balance the statutory rights of the disabled with the legitimate interests of institutions to preserve the integrity of programs.

Age Requirements

One of the significant factors resulting in lawsuits is the ability of state high school athletic associations to use the age of student athletes as a requirement to participate in high school sports. Even so, courts are split on whether waiving an age requirement is a reasonable accommodation. The ability and reach of the courts to review actions of voluntary associations, like state athletic associations, is somewhat limited, while in most cases, the judiciary defers to the judgments of athletic associations regarding matters of eligibility, except when their actions are found to be fraudulent, arbitrary, or capricious.

George J. Petersen

See also Americans with Disabilities Act; Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504; Title IX and Athletics

Further Readings

  • Dickman, D., & Lammel, J. A. (2000). Getting to the core of student athletic standards. Principal Leadership, 1(2), 30–32. 
  • Morton, S., Richardson, B., & Vizoso, A. (1993). Academic standards for interscholastic athletic participation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Educational Policy Research Center. (ERIC Reproduction Service Document No. ED375116) 
  • Missouri State High School Activities Association. (n.d.). http://www.mshsaa.org 
  • National Federation of High School Athletic Associations. (n.d.). http://www.nfhs.org 
  • National High School Athletic Coaches Associations. (n.d.). http://www.hscoaches.org 
  • Sadker, D., & Sadker, M. (2005). What is Title IX? Retrieved March 27, 2007, from http://www.american.edu/sadker/titleix.htm 
  • Alabama High School Athletic Association Web Site. (n.d.). http://www.ahsaa.org 
  • Wolohan, J. T. (1996, July). The Americans with Disabilities Act and its effect on high school athletic associations’ age restrictions. West’s Educational Law Quarterly, 5, 389–398. 

Legal Citations