Thursday, April 26, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Power grab on high school athletics

The state has a vested interest in protecting the integrity of high school sports. Requiring student-athletes to play at their assigned schools levels the playing field in athletic competitions across the state. And the sanctioning rules serve a broader societal benefit by impressing upon thousands of Florida students every year the ideals of honesty and fair play. But legislation moving through the Legislature would open the door even more to the sleazy, all-too-familiar practice of openly recruiting these students across school boundaries. The bill is a power grab by lawmakers that would serve only to further corrupt the system.

Supporters say HB 1279 is meant to give student-athletes due process protection when they are faced with allegations of playing for a school outside their assigned zone. They argue the legislation brings some much-needed accountability to the state's sanctioning body, the Florida High School Athletic Association, a nonprofit founded a century ago that state law recognizes as the governing body for high school athletics.

But those descriptions are as inaccurate as they are self-serving. The bill would make it nearly impossible for the association to police the comings and goings of student-athletes, leaving it to the very schools and coaches who have abused the system for years to self-report. Students would not be declared ineligible to play unless they were found to have "intentionally and knowingly" falsified a residency document. Students and parents could tie the association up in knots by claiming an innocent mistake. The association also could not suspend a student from playing until after the case was heard and formally decided upon by the Division of Administrative Hearings, a process that could easily take months and extend far beyond the end of a sport's playing season.

The legislation would end the association's role of being an independent arbiter of student eligibility rules that are agreed to by its own members, both public and private schools. The board's current, 16-member board of directors would be ousted by September and replaced by a 25-member board, nearly half of which would be appointed by the Senate president, House speaker and commissioner of education. The education commissioner would also hire and fire the association's executive director. And the bill would cut the director's salary and bar such perks as a cellular phone or automobile allowance. The last thing the association needs to become is a political patronage operation.

There are plenty of ways for the Legislature to ensure that the association lives by its existing due process protections without blocking it from enforcing the residency rules altogether. This petty legislation is a full-fledged attack on a group that is chartered in Florida to promote a legitimate public interest. The government has no need to take over this institution, much less undermine the integrity of high school athletics. The House, which takes the measure up in another committee today, should kill a bill that would contribute to cheating and send the wrong message to Florida's youth.

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