TALLAHASSEE — The body that oversees high school sports in Florida is preparing its fourth-quarter defense.
On Wednesday, the Florida House passed a proposal that strips power away from the Florida High School Athletic Association. It also eases the rules that prevent students from playing sports at schools they don't attend.
The bill, HB 1279, appeared to be dead last week. But the proposal got new life Monday, when the Senate Education Committee gave a first nod to its Senate companion. The House bill is now eligible to be heard on the Senate floor.
FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing maintains the proposal would open the door to free agency for high school athletes and transform schools into "recruiting-frenzied sports giants."
"It's far fetched and it's egregious," Dearing said. "We're going to keep rallying the troops (in opposition)."
This is the second consecutive year Florida lawmakers have tried to overhaul the FHSAA, the 93-year-old, private non-profit that has been criticized for being overly punitive when schools and student-athletes break the rules.
"The thought behind this bill this year was let's try to change the board a little bit to get a different mix there, so that we might be able to change the culture of the organization," said Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, who is sponsoring the bill.
Metz's bill would revamp the FHSAA governing board, place four-year term limits on its members, and require the executive director to be confirmed by the state Senate. It would also cap the executive director's salary and expenses, and limit the association's authority to investigate possible recruiting violations.
Metz acknowledged the bill could allow students to play sports at schools they don't attend, but only if their home school did not offer that program.
"If a student wants to just transfer, they have to go to their school board to get that approved," Metz said. "That's under current law and that's still under the law that would exist if this bill were passed."
The bill wouldn't create free agency, Metz said. "It's very much preserving the initial role of the FHSAA in overseeing athletics and having eligibility standards that are in statute," he said.
Recruiting is explicitly forbidden in Florida high school sports.
Metz's proposal inspired impassioned debate Wednesday.
"What we have is a playground fight that got elevated all the way to the state Legislature," said Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa.
Danish said homeschooled students, and those attending private and charter schools, would have the ability to shop for athletic programs, and that would damage the integrity of high school athletics.
In the end, the majority of representatives agreed with Metz. "It's about time someone reined in the power and the abuse of power by the FHSAA," said Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City.
The House approved the bill by an 89-26 vote.
What will happen in the Senate is anybody's guess. The fact that the bill got a last-minute committee hearing in the Senate suggests that powerful lawmakers are pushing for it.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has been working to rally support in the upper chamber.
But Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, has vowed to fight against it.
"We already have a well-defined, well-functioning structure," said Montford, a former superintendent who once sat on the FHSAA governing board. "There's no need to change it."