GAINESVILLE — In a brief meeting high on attendance and passionate dialogue, the Florida High School Athletic Association's board of directors voted unanimously Wednesday to rescind a previous decision to trim contest schedules in nearly all its sanctioned sports.
The 15-0 vote, held before a gallery of dozens at the FHSAA headquarters in north Gainesville, came in the wake of a lawsuit filed by a gender-equity group that argued the trimmed schedules violated federal Title IX guidelines, essentially because football was excluded.
The original FHSAA decision, approved by a 9-6 vote in April and intended to help alleviate the state's educational budget crunch, would have trimmed varsity schedules in all sports (except football and cheerleading) by 20 percent and reduced junior varsity schedules by 40 percent.
On Wednesday, FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing said the costs of a potential years-long court battle would have negated any money saved by the trimmed schedules.
"I'm a native Floridian," Dearing said. "There's an old saying that says the juice is not worth the squeeze."
A hearing on the gender-equity group's motion for a preliminary injunction against the FHSAA is set for Friday in a federal courtroom in Jacksonville. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs against the FHSAA. Whether that hearing now will be rendered moot remains unclear.
Before being advised by an FHSAA attorney not to comment further, Dearing told reporters: "I don't think it makes any difference what happened today, something happens on Friday. Today's action does not eliminate what happens Friday, but it may eliminate what decision the judge makes and what ruling he makes at this point."
Title IX attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a U.S. Olympic swimming gold medalist representing the six-parent gender-equity coalition, was pleased with Wednesday's vote but expressed lingering reservations.
"I'm very happy that it was a unanimous decision," said Hogshead-Makar, an FHSAA Hall of Fame member whose plaque hangs in a hallway of the association office. "On the other hand, it does worry me in the fact that the (FHSAA) doesn't recognize how this is a violation of law.
"Nobody said, 'Oh we're sorry,' or 'We see the light now,' or 'This was a violation of gender equity.' The only thing that has made a difference for them is a lawsuit."
Dearing said the FHSAA's intention all along was not to discriminate but simply assist the state with the financial crisis and devise a uniform, cost-cutting solution so no sport would be eliminated. Football, the state's primary revenue sport, was spared because it helps finance nonrevenue sports.
"To me, cutting football was cutting revenue in girls sports," said Pinellas Park athletic director Greg Zornes, the FHSAA board's president.
"I think the hearts of the board and the staff were pure," Dearing added. "Sometimes even though you have a pure heart, the law has a different interpretation. And I think we have to respect the law of the land."
The vote means that, effective immediately, most traditional team sports (basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer) can schedule a maximum 25 regular-season games instead of 20.
"I think this is a great decision, and it was the one that made the most sense," Clearwater boys basketball coach Allen Carden said. "I never felt they should've taken the games away from the kids. It doesn't help them get better."
Gulf girls basketball coach Mike Quarto also lauded the decision. "I think it's great for the kids," he said. "I think it's great for the schools and great for the community to be able to watch their teams play more games in the regular season."
Districts may balk
The board's action, however, may be too late for some fall sports teams that had resigned themselves to shorter schedules.
Nick Grasso, athletic director for Pinellas County public high schools, said the county will pay for 16 games in sports such as volleyball and boys and girls basketball. Individual schools will be responsible for scheduling and funding the remaining games if they want to reach the maximum of 25.
Plant volleyball coach Leanna Taylor said her team committed to playing in an elite tournament in Chicago for a second straight year but couldn't commit to the Berkeley Premier — one of the state's top tournaments.
"We've been told (by the county) we might be able to pick up two or three games, so we still won't be able to get back to 25," Taylor said. "But hopefully we can pick up another tournament and get the five games back. Maybe some coaches will get together and start another one so we can get the games in."
While signaling somewhat of a victory for Title IX proponents, the FHSAA's action still could produce a devastating ripple effect for Florida prep sports. Amid the budget crisis, individual school districts still could mandate their teams schedule fewer than the maximum amount allowed.
Some districts, in fact, could trim sports altogether.
"Now the inequities begin," warned board member Tim Wilder, superintendent of Gulf County schools. "Now is when school districts will say, 'We're not going to be able to do it; we're going to have to cut back.' "
Hillsborough County assistant athletic director Jennifer Burchill said future athletic budget cuts in Hillsborough will be up to Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who announced Tuesday she'll take a 5 percent voluntary pay cut, and her staff.
Could losing sports be a possibility?
"I think you always have that in the back of your mind based upon what goes on with the economy and what goes on with our funding," said Burchill, who attended the meeting. "Every aspect of the economy is feeling pinches, and the question is just going to be where is that pinch going to come from?"
Times staff writers Eduardo A. Encina and Bob Putnam contributed to this report.