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The State of the FHSAA _ one year later

Bob Hughes joined the Florida High School Activities Association last year as commissioner-elect and became commissioner Oct. 1. With practice for fall sports under way, he recently talked with Times staff writer Antonya English about his first year on the job.

TIMES: You joined the FHSAA about one year ago and quickly began making changes. Did you know what you wanted to do going in?

HUGHES: In some areas. It was well-known, since I was on the board in 1997 representing the superintendents of the state, that I had a feel and a strong commitment to improve the image of the association, to develop partnerships with the school board association, the superintendents association, the coaches associations, the athletic directors and private school people. It was image, but it was also based on communication and networking and dealing with the Legislature and how people perceived us and how open we are. Soon I will have an announcement about the compliance/enforcement officer. Once I got here, I found that the investigations were very time-consuming. People report things, and basically, the commissioner and deputy commissioner try to do it. But if we had other activities going on, you just had to put it on the shelf and wait until you got around to do it. This is too big an association, and too many things are going on around the state. Member schools have an expectation of once they report something, they expect some follow-up and to hear something back in a timely and reasonable fashion.

TIMES: The state Legislature passed a law two years ago that requires athletes to maintain a 2.0 cumulative grade point average to be eligible. This standard can doom an athlete who has one poor semester, and the FHSAA has lobbied to have a legislative change to that rule. What happened to that bill, and will the association pursue it next year?

HUGHES: The bill we sponsored was a disappointment in that the House passed it unanimously, but it failed in the Senate. We were trying to go back to the semester. Basically, the phraseology was if they enter high school and they are eligible and they lose their eligibility _ say the first semester of their ninth-grade year _ if they sign a contract and agree to maintain a 2.0, they can regain their eligibility on a semester basis rather than cumulative until they hit their junior year. Then they have to have the cumulative back. I think it's a good change, and most agreed in the Legislature. We just got caught up in internal politics in the Senate that had nothing to do with us. In June, the board unanimously approved the same legislative program, which includes that.

TIMES: One of the biggest changes you made was to football playoffs. Basically, half of the teams playing football will make the playoffs under your system, which includes district champions, runners-up and wild-card teams. Doesn't that water down the playoffs?

HUGHES: No, I don't think so. But truthfully, we won't know that until we get through our first state series this year. It's a two-year plan, and we will look at it and see if there are any glaring weaknesses or if we've done anything to detract or weaken the position of the state champions or water it down. What we heard from people was that the old system was unfair because the classifications would have 85 schools in one classification and 54 in another, and there was not an even distribution of schools. If you were a 3A or 2A champion, you only had to beat 53 other teams. And if you were 4A or 5A, it was 86. And people said that was an equity issue.

TIMES: Why not take district champions and establish a wild-card system that would reward strong teams and districts but leave mediocre teams at home?

HUGHES: There is no pure ratings system to necessarily determine who are the strongest teams and who are the mediocre teams. Other than the level of competition through the bracket process of folks winning, you have to have a system set up to do that. And if you get caught up in this business about polls, ratings and trying to compare all this other stuff, you create such a bureaucracy that you lose sight of what you are trying to do, which is amateur high school athletics and opportunities for students. I don't think that's an issue and is attainable under the present system. We're going to try the wild-card deal in football, monitor it and see how that works out. And that could have future ramifications to look at a system that might determine how many district runners-up we could take and do what you're saying. But the idea of doing what we're doing in football is a pretty bold venture and change. So over the long term, we will consider that. We're not trying to necessarily give more opportunities to those that have the best and have had the best athletic programs. It's very possible in the long haul that a student that's a district runner-up in Inverness might get more out of the experience and the community than someone else. They might not get very far, but giving them that opportunity to start with is kind of the American way. We're not a professional sports association, and that's not our goal.

TIMES: The public-private issue nearly fractured the association a few years ago. What plans do you have to make sure both can exist under one governing body?

HUGHES: One of the things this past year was the discussion about should we have a bylaw requiring member schools to play a minimum number of sports. The academies _ tennis, golf and swimming _ have gotten more attention of late when we get in the state series than private-public. At one time, the public schools talked a lot about how private schools could recruit. But now many school districts have choice plans, magnet programs, over-enrolled, under-enrolled, majority-minority, vocational-related, and they encourage their schools to recruit students. They get to recruit for academic reasons, but obviously there will be some student-athletes in there. I think the lines are merging between public and private.

TIMES: With magnet schools, desegregation plans and other open enrollment policies, the door is open for athletes to attend many schools, public and private. Is the FHSAA powerless to stop such transfers?

HUGHES: Here's what I think: Essentially, a transfer student is now defined in Florida statute and our bylaws as a student who transfers after they begin the school year or begin practice. Changing high schools over the summer, permitted by the school board for different criteria and being at that school the first day of school, for us is not a transfer student. Transfer means first day of school (to) last day of school, first day of practice until end of school year. The criteria we have on our recruiting policy is the student cannot play for that school's summer team and then transfer, cannot have any contact with any coach at that school (undue influence), be approached by that school saying you come here and play and we'll get you financial aid. I think they are two separate issues. I think we'll be able to regulate them and enforce our rules as we have spelled out because our piece of it is athletic, not academic. We'll have to monitor it and see. But to me, it is understandable and enforceable.

TIMES: Gender equity is another issue that troubles high school athletics. The FHSAA Board of Directors considered adding several sports over the last year but decided against them. What is the FHSAA doing to help schools comply with Title IX?

HUGHES: We had a bylaw that said 30 percent of schools had to participate in a sport to have a state championship, but we got that bylaw appealed. It also said that 20 percent of the schools had to maintain and participate to keep the sport. We intend for our board of directors to adopt a policy this year to establish a criteria for adding state championships for those other sports (that don't have 30 percent participation). What we want to be able to do is have an administrator on our athletic staff who would be a contact person as a resource to work with school districts who are adding sports and complying with gender equity, offering advice and technical assistance and maybe doing some research for them. As they develop those teams and want to have a championship series, our role has been let's get ourselves in a position to be responsive with a policy rather than a bylaw. I attended the girls volleyball, basketball, soccer and golf state series. It was the first time a commissioner has been to a girls golf tournament. I'm making sure that we have the same emphasis, support, organization, staffing, media, communications from our level for the girls district, regional and state championships as we do for boys.

TIMES: Some have argued that the FHSAA board, which has no women or minorities on it, is not well-equipped to deal with the gender equity issue. How do you respond to that?

HUGHES: The diversity on the board is a real complex issue because in the way this board is structured, the only real appointments to the board as far as having some discretion come from the commissioner of education. The other folks on the board are elected. It's an elected, democratic process. What we have a cross-representation on, which I think is extremely important, is the Representative Assembly and the Sectional Appeals Committees. Those have better balance of diversity, racial as well as gender, because they are slots where the board has the authority to appoint. The board votes on policy and meets five times a year. The real important issues are the Representative Assembly, and the appeals are through the Sectional Appeals Committee.

TIMES: You discovered through a member survey that many schools thought the FHSAA took too much of a cut from preseason classics and post-season playoffs, so you have cut back on the portion the FHSAA gets from such events. What other ways are you helping schools finance their athletic programs?

HUGHES: That was a major accomplishment and a policy shift that I think sends a message that if we are financially in the shape to do so, we should be supporting member schools who are trying to get money to provide sports programs for students. We took the survey from 370-some schools, and we took their top two issues where they needed help financially _ classics and jamborees and hosting district tournaments. Now we're going to monitor it and see where we need to go next.

TIMES: You have made many changes in your first year. What plans do you have for further changes?

HUGHES: I'm constantly struggling with what I think is the extremely important role of the association, and that is the methods and strategy that we use to communicate and how we disseminate information. I'm concerned about how we conduct meetings around the state and what meetings are valuable. That and also working on the internal personnel, administrative, operational and organizational chart. (Defining) the job responsibilities within the building are a priority for me this year; getting the association operating under a new organizational chart and making sure that we're not overlapping responsibilities and who has clearly defined duties. Training officials is a priority this year. We're starting a different training and evaluating program, and we're going back to the association selecting the officials for region and state tournaments. The officials' associations have done it the last two years, but the board voted to go back to having (us) select who does the region and state games. We have a pilot program in basketball where people volunteer. And we'll get some evaluators trained, and they will set up a ranking to select the top officials.