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Tue. March 26, 2013 | Matt Baker | Email

A week after a subcommittee unanimously approved a state bill that would regulate the state’s governing body for high school sports, the Florida High School Athletic Association went on the offensive.

The FHSAA brought in two star athletes – former Bucs and current high school coaches Mike Alstott and Reidel Anthony – along with executive director Roger Dearing to a teleconference with reporters across the state to discuss proposed bills that could change the association’s duties, finances and structure.

The move came a few days after House Bill 1279 was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives’ choice and innovation subcommittee.

Dearing said the proposed bills would “shatter community spirit” and could create “recruiting-frenzied sports giants” by easing transfer restrictions and limiting the FHSAA’s ability to investigate.

“Unfortunately this legislation opens the door to nefarious people who might want to circumvent the rules…” Dearing said. “These bills undermine our ability to enforce the rules.”

Dearing was more animated Tuesday than he was in a phone interview with the Times three weeks ago, when he said the FHSAA would abide by whatever laws the state passes.

Dearing’s biggest fear over the two main bills – Senate Bill 1164 and HB 1279 – is that their passage could lead to free agency in high school sports. Critics made similar complaints about HB 1403, which eased transfer restrictions and gave more eligibility power to school districts instead of the FHSAA after it became law in July.

These bills would go even further. The FHSAA would lose more of its abilities to make eligibility decisions to school districts. HB 1279 would limit the FHSAA’s investigations to only 90 days, and both bills would give a judge for the Division of Administrative Hearings the final say in eligibility. The FHSAA handles more than 2,000 eligibility questions a year, and only about 72 athletes are ruled ineligible.

Alstott, the football coach at Northside Christian, said he didn’t understand all of the bills but was against policies that would make it easier for unhappy students to change schools so easily.

“I understand free agency. It was in the NFL,” Alstott said. “I understand recruiting. That was in college. At the same time, that’s not what high school football is all about.”

FHSAA supporters are also concerned that looser transfer guidelines and the ability for players to follow club coaches to a new school could create havoc. Dearing said the legislation could allow a student to play football at one school, basketball at a second school and baseball at a third school – all in the same season.

One part of HB 1279 allows for the FHSAA to set a deadline for eligibility in a sport. If a player transfers after that, he or she might not be eligible. But a different provision says a student-athlete can compete in sports as long as the school or district approves the transfer.

Dearing said districts or schools could interpret those rules differently. That could give a school with weaker enforcement a competitive advantage over other ones.

“It becomes an unfair, unlevel playing field,” Dearing said.

FHSAA supporters also worried about the extra delay caused by the FHSAA losing its eligibility authority. Instead of the FHSAA ruling on a player’s eligibility, an outside judge would. That extra legal step could take months to resolve and allow an ineligible player to continue participating against schools that are following the rules.

“It’s not fair to all those other kids,” Dearing said.

At least one FHSAA opponent disagrees with Dearing’s arguments.

“Instead of opening the floodgates for recruiting of high school athletes, as many may claim, this proposal simply establishes that students will be presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Jim Hart, the chairman for Floridians for Government Accountability, said in a press release. “This is a basic right of all citizens, so why do we not allow for this to be extended to our high school students as well?”

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