The agency that sanctions high school athletics in Florida painted a scandalous picture this week of how easily a group of ineligible student athletes were able to play on the winning football team at Hillsborough County's Armwood High School. But even worse was the reaction by superintendent MaryEllen Elia. She dumped the blame entirely on the parents — not on the school, the coaching staff or even "two representatives" of Armwood who were singled out in the report for helping to falsify a student's eligibility. Elia needs to hold her own staff to account. The schools' handling of this matter looks like incompetence at best and collusion at worst.
An investigation by the Florida High School Athletic Association found that five players on Armwood's 2011 state championship football team falsified residence information to make themselves eligible. The players used a range of deceits, from false hardship stories and bogus housing leases to fraudulent utility documents to win assignment in Armwood's school boundary.
The parents and their friends who concocted the schemes to put these players on the winning program indeed are responsible for the bulk of the blame. But the district was so accommodating it calls into question whether the county aggressively enforces the rules for fair play in high school athletics or looks the other way when it's convenient.
Red flags were everywhere. The father of one boy said he met with Armwood's football coach prior to his son enrolling. Coach Sean Callahan allegedly allowed another student from a different high school to practice with the Armwood team. A third student enrolled using an address for an apartment complex that was used by at least three recent transfers to the football team. Though principal Michael Ippolito blocked the third player from the team, citing concerns over his eligibility, he pushed off any immediate attempt to verify the student's residence. When an investigator for the sanctioning body asked an assistant coach to explain the problems, the coach demurred, saying he had not read much of the FHSAA's rule book during his three years on the job.
The sanctioning agency's bylaws make it abundantly clear that individual schools must ensure compliance with their interscholastic athletic programs — and that principals ultimately are responsible for "all aspects" of conduct by their coaches, staff, student athletes and athletic booster clubs. Elia may have had some problem parents, but she has larger problems on her home turf and she needs to fix them.