Saturday, February 24, 2018
Sports

Bill takes aim at FHSAA

If two state legislators get their way, the Florida High School Athletic Association's eligibility authority would shift to the current last resort for schools and families: a judge.

Proposed legislation filed last week would make school districts and an outside judge in charge of eligibility rulings such as transfers, not the FHSAA. The bill also would overhaul the structure and regulate some of the expenses for the state's governing body for high school sports.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the proposal would shift power from the nonprofit FHSAA and to elected officials and parents.

"(Parents) have the right to move so their child can go to a better school, live in a better neighborhood and there's nothing to say they can't make their choice for better sports programs," said Stargel, who filed SB 1164 Feb. 25. "Who are they to say a family didn't move for the right reasons? That's the family's decision."

FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing said in an email that his staff plans to discuss the proposed legislation Monday morning and declined an interview request until after that meeting.

The most noticeable change under Stargel's proposal — and an identical bill filed Thursday in the state House of Representatives by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Eustis — would center on eligibility for transfers.

The current system works like this: Each school or district determines a player's eligibility through its own policies. The FHSAA has other restrictions, too, including a provision that keeps players from following a club coach to a new high school.

The FHSAA gets involved if a school official asks for an eligibility ruling or if someone raises accusations of wrongdoing, such as recruiting or using a fake address. The FHSAA then investigates and issues punishments, which schools or students can appeal to a different FHSAA board.

If the bill passes, players will be eligible as long as the school approves the transfer, regardless of why they changed schools, as long as nothing was falsified, no recruiting took place and the sports season hasn't started.

Instead of the FHSAA making an eligibility ruling, the organization would have to petition the Division of Administrative Hearings, the branch that settles government agency disputes. The FHSAA would have to demonstrate to a judge with "clear and convincing evidence" that the student should be ineligible. If the FHSAA loses its case, it would have to pay the other party's legal fees.

"What they had before is, you were guilty before proving your innocence," said Peter Hobson, a Tampa-based attorney who has represented Armwood students and Tampa Bay Christian's boys basketball program in FHSAA investigations.

"Now you're innocent until proven guilty. It changes nearer to our jurisprudence system."

Athletes have occasionally taken FHSAA decisions to court. Gabe Nold was ruled ineligible after transferring from Wharton to Armwood last spring. The football player was granted a temporary injunction in court in January that allowed him to wrestle.

"I think people are starting to see the FHSAA for what it is," said Gabe's father, John. "They can't just sit behind the organization and make rulings and judgments and just say we can."

The proposed legislation would also:

• Require the FHSAA to complete a "comprehensive review and analysis" of its rules and give its report to the Department of Education, governor and legislative leaders.

• Expand the FHSAA's board of directors from 16 people to 25. Four new members would be appointed by the house speaker, and four more would be appointed by the president of the senate. The other would be appointed by the executive director.

• Limit the FHSAA's finances, requiring its travel and per diem expenses to fall in line with other state employees. It would also prevent the organization's executive director from making more than the governor. Dearing's contract calls for him to receive a 2012-13 base salary of $151,000 — about $21,000 more than what the state designates for the governor ($130,273).

Stargel's bill follows up on similar, controversial legislation passed last year. That law, House Bill 1403, eased student-athletes' abilities to transfer, as long as they followed district guidelines. It also tightened up regulation on the FHSAA's investigators.

Critics feared it would lead to a wilder period of free agency, where top players could change schools easily without restrictions. HB 1403 became law July 1.

"But it seemed the FHSAA wasn't following the intent of the bill," Stargel said. "This is to further clarify our intention, which is you don't punish the student for the mishaps of the adults around them."

Although this is Florida's second recent bill to target the FHSAA's policies, state legislatures rarely regulate athletic organizations' rules, said Bob Gardner, executive director for the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Most state high school sports programs are governed by decades-old, nonprofit groups. Rule changes can be slow at times, Gardner said, but state associations understand the complex problems specific to high school sports, especially hot-button issues such as recruiting or transferring.

"You have rules in existence to kind of protect the students who are already there from people who are coming in without a good cause," Gardner said.

This isn't the first time the state government has challenged the FHSAA's powers.

In 1997, the state passed a bill that forced the FHSAA to restructure and change its appeals process or be replaced with another organization.

Six years later, a representative from Hialeah filed a bill to abolish the association and let the Department of Education regulate high school sports instead.

Staff writers John C. Cotey and Joey Knight contributed to this report.

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