TAMPA — On April 14, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law an education bill that, in part, established changes to the present structure of the Florida High School Athletic Association, forcing the organization to allow schools to opt-in to membership on a per-sport basis.
Now the FHSAA — which has been in charge of high school athletics in Florida since 1920 — is fighting back with what some are calling "retaliatory" policies, and state legislators are threatening to take action.
Before the passage of House Bill 7029, schools were required to be full members of the FHSAA for all the sports in which they competed. The legislation, which goes into effect July 1, states that not only can private schools now join on a per-sport basis, but the FHSAA "may not discourage a private school from simultaneously maintaining membership in another athletic association."
Still, in the FHSAA's application for private school membership for the 2016-17 school year, it provides a chart listing the benefits of "full membership" and "partial membership," with the latter not including the option of participating in the state playoffs. Essentially, opt-in members will be treated like independent schools, which have to join a secondary athletic association in order to participate in postseason play.
"That language has never changed going back to 1999," said Kyle Niblett, FHSAA public relations specialist. "If they're a partial member, none of their sports can compete in the state playoffs."
As far as Rep. Ross Spano is concerned, that policy is in direct violation of the new law.
"There's not even the slightest hint of a question in my mind about what their intent is," said Spano, one of the backers of the law. "From the very beginning, it was clear that their major concern over this bill was the impact it would have on their ability to control and monopolize high school athletes."
The Sunshine State Athletic Conference was originally formed in 2008 to provide independent schools — mostly charter and private schools that elected not to be in an FHSAA district because of their small size — the opportunity to compete in a football postseason, and it has since grown to include other sports.
Tampa Bay schools Zephyrhills Christian (girls and boys basketball, football), Bishop McLaughlin (football) and Keswick Christian (football) are members of the organization. And while they are allowed to compete in the SSAC playoffs, the FHSAA grants them no additional games past the 10-game regular season.
SSAC president Stuart Weiss said he has been to Tallahassee and involved in monitoring potential legislation that would benefit the kind of small private and charter schools his organization represents. They were encouraged by the passage of the legislation, he added, but quickly disappointed by the FHSAA's interpretation.
"We just feel that's unfair. We've tried to work within FHSAA. This is not our desire. This is not the way we wanted it to go. But we had to do this to seek fairness for our members," he said. "Everybody who participates in sports just wants a chance to compete and win something."
Spano, a Republican who has represented District 59 (Hillsborough County) since he was elected in 2012, said he initially got involved in supporting the bill at the request of a contact who works closely with the SSAC.
"When he asked me to run the bill, I said, 'This sounds like something I can really be passionate about,' " Spano said. "I don't have a problem getting behind an issue where you have the little guys, the little schools, trying to participate in an environment that's fun and safe."
But based on the FHSAA's response, he said, the concept of fairness has once again been muddled.
The legislature has been in talks with the FHSAA lately about changing their stance, and Spano said he's an optimist, hoping for cooperation with the nearly century-old governing body. If that doesn't happen, though, he said litigation or disbanding the organization could be a consideration.
"The question is, can we or should we be expected to continue to try over and over and over again to work with an organization that clearly does not respect the authority of the legislature? My answer to that is no," Spano said. "If they're not going to work with us in good faith … then we need to go in a different direction."
Contact Kelly Parsons at [email protected] Follow @_kellyparsons.