To a degree some never envisioned, high school free agency now is Florida law.
Starting this school year, your garden-variety shortstop conceivably could enroll at Countryside High in August, explode during fall play in October, transfer to Dunedin in December, and suit up for the Falcons in February.
Depending on one’s perspective, it’s either a scenario trumpeting the liberties of school choice, or a hypothetical steeped in hemlock; another contaminant to prep athletics.
In any event, it’s legislation, and it has siphoned some regulatory power from the 92-year-old Florida High School Athletic Association, which governs high school sports statewide.
Its official title: House Bill 1403. It has spawned roughly 1,403 viewpoints.
Countryside volleyball/softball coach Kaylyn Bayly: “I think it’s a terrible rule.”
Steinbrenner athletic director Eddie Henderson: “It’s going to affect some schools positively and some negatively.”
Polk County AD Don Bridges: “You could end up playing somebody in the playoffs that’s got an all-star team.”
Such is the fallout from the legislation that its creator, Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, calls “by far the hardest bill I’ve ever had to work on.” At its essence, it eases transfer restrictions and clamps down on FHSAA investigators. In most cases of suspected recruiting, it would vindicate the kid and penalize the coach.
The lightning-rod segment of the bill is a provision that allows a student-athlete to transfer during the school year and be eligible for sports right away, if his or her sport hasn’t started. FHSAA bylaws previously restricted eligibility to the first school attended each year, with limited exceptions.
The lone stipulation: The transfer remains contingent upon approval from the local school district (or private school).
“The way the system works now, you’re basically guilty ’til proven innocent,” said Stargel, a 1984 Land O’Lakes graduate who didn’t play sports for the Gators. “Every child who moves is basically ineligible unless you file a waiver and prove you’re eligible. We’re reversing it.”
The law’s development virtually coincided with controversial FHSAA probes into the Lakeland and Armwood High football programs, both of which had to forfeit at least a season of victories (and in Armwood’s case, a state title) for using transfer players later deemed ineligible.
But Stargel said those cases didn’t inspire her bill, adding neither outcome would have changed because families at both schools were found to have falsified enrollment data to gain eligibility.
That’s still a no-no under Stargel’s law, as are the receiving of impermissible benefits. But when it formally takes effect Sunday, students cannot be declared ineligible for any other recruiting-based infraction by a coach.
Instead, coaches could be suspended or forced to pay any fines a school may incur. The FHSAA also may require the school to move up one classification for the sport in which the recruiting infraction occurred for a two-year period.
Translation: Punish the adults, not the child. “The law was getting to the drug user,” said Stargel, a mother of five. “And I’m trying to get to the drug dealer.”
Yet to many, Stargel’s pursuit of justice has triggered pandemonium. Because local school districts retain the final say in approving a transfer, the new law seems destined to create statewide inequities.
In Polk County, for instance, students who wish to transfer must do so in writing by June 15, or wait until the first day of the second semester. In Miami-Dade, a student who enrolls anywhere other than the school serving his or her home address forfeits athletic eligibility for a calendar year, with limited exceptions including a family’s complete change of residence.
Similar restrictions could be forthcoming in Hillsborough County. In the wake of the Armwood scandal, where the families of five football players were found to have falsified enrollment information, the district has created a committee to establish transfer policies and safeguards for determining future eligibility. A committee workshop is slated for July 17.
Elsewhere, transfer policies may not be as stringent.
In an e-mail to the Tampa Bay Times, Pinellas County athletic director Nick Grasso said his district will follow state policy regarding transfers, but will be assertive in dealing with them. Pasco County AD Phil Bell, known in the past for his keen scrutiny of student-athlete transfers, indicated he’s still examining how his district will address the new law.
Then there are private schools, not under the jurisdiction of their local public school district.
“I believe the bill has some negative aspects to it because 67 different school districts can do it 67 different ways and all the private schools can do it different ways, so it can create some confusion,” Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson said.
“However …it can be positive because it puts the onus (for approving transfers) on the district. Now the schools aren’t having to explain their actions kind of like what Armwood is doing.”
For the prep sports purists, the positives are tougher to perceive. By getting involved, they say, the Legislature has removed one more impediment to free agency.
“It’s just going to be a free-for-all where the rich get richer,” Bayly said.
“Basically it’s come down to 67 different counties have basic transfer policies,” Bridges said. “It doesn’t make a very level playing field because all the counties end up playing each other.”
Highlights of House Bill 1403
• Student-athletes may transfer during the school year and immediately be eligible if: a) the transfer is approved by their local school district or private school, and b) the season of the sport in which they participate hasn’t begun.
• Coaches found guilty of recruiting infractions may receive a suspension and be forced to pay any fine incurred by his or her school. Student-athletes can’t be punished for the recruiting infractions of a coach unless they falsified enrollment information or received an impermissible benefit.
• Schools found guilty of a recruiting infraction may be required to compete at a higher classification for the sport in which the recruited student competes for a minimum two years.
• FHSAA investigators now must (among other things) undergo Level 2 background screening, carry an FHSAA photo ID at all times, conduct interviews Monday-Friday between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. only, and allow the parent of any student being interviewed to be present
• FHSAA member schools may compete against non-member Florida schools
What they’re saying
“I’m an old-school guy and I’m a big believer that you should go to your neighborhood school. That’s what I’m going to instill in my children. We live in Wharton’s district and my kids will attend Wharton High School.” — Steinbrenner athletic director Eddie Henderson
“Honestly, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. If a kid’s disgruntled he’s probably lost already. If not, maybe he’ll stick it out. …I figure if we do our job as coaches we’re going to keep our kids here.” — Hudson boys basketball coach Jason Vetter
“I don’t think it’s the proper role of an organization, the FHSAA or any other, to come in and inspect my house to see if I have the right amount of underwear in my drawer.” — Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland (referring to the FHSAA’s requirement of a “full and complete” residence move for some transfer students)
“The bill ‘would benefit those with a predisposition to cheat, by tearing down barriers that exist to keep those few unscrupulous coaches from improperly recruiting impressionable young athletes.’ ” — FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing, in a conference call before the bill passed. (In that call, Dearing noted that only 74 out of 263,000 athletes at FHSAA member schools were declared ineligible in the 2010-11 school year).
Photo: Countryside volleyball/softball coach Kaylyn Bayly
Staff writers Matt Baker and Bob Putnam contributed to this report.