A recent Tampa high school sports tragedy highlights the need for proper procedures

Having specialists take over the complicated question of athletic eligibility, Joe Henderson writes, could improve the process and keep kids off the field who shouldn’t be there.
Published August 14

Alarm bells were clanging loudly throughout the Hillsborough County school district following the death of incoming Middleton High School freshman Hezekiah B. Walters at a football conditioning session in June.

He shouldn’t have been on the field because he hadn’t completed the mandatory steps needed to be cleared to participate. That includes watching safety videos, providing completed physical exams, and proof of residency.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins said other Middleton athletes also were participating without being cleared.

He called that “unacceptable,” and the district brought the hammer. The head coach was replaced, and an assistant principal was demoted. But it’s not as simple as just shaking down the thunder on this issue. Here’s why.

There are 27 public high schools in the county and each one has an extensive athletic program. That doesn’t include the charters and private schools.

Each public school has around 20 varsity teams in various sports with about 300 overall participants. Compounding the problem is that coaches often might be teaching at another school or working a job unrelated to the district.

It can be extremely difficult for those coaches to keep up.

By the way, all those outside coaches are required to have background checks and certification in multiple areas. They also must watch videos on recognizing concussions, sudden cardiac arrest, and avoiding heat-related illnesses. Student-athletes are required to watch those videos as well.

The job of keeping track of who is eligible and who isn’t currently falls to an assistant principal. That’s not that person’s only job, though — far from it. They put out any of a hundred fires and flare-ups that are a daily part of life in a high school office. Athletics can be low on the to-do list on any given day.

So, put it together.

At each school, there are multiple sports in season throughout the year with hundreds of athletes, and coaches who may be working at another campus miles away. Things can and do go wrong, and there is no failsafe way to ensure they won’t.

Also, the eligibility process went online this year for the first time. Previously, parents filled out multiple paper forms that a coach could see. Now, it’s all done by computer and — this just in — not everyone owns one. I watched the 6 ½-minute video that tries to show participants what to do, and I can see why parents and athletes get frustrated.

There must be a better way. The job is too big for someone to oversee while trying to keep up with dozens of other tasks.

School board member Lynn Gray, who also is a private coach for distance runners, has an idea worth considering. Take the eligibility questions off the assistant principal’s plate and replace them with district athletic compliance officers whose sole job would be to keep tabs on all schools.

“We already have a compliance department,” she said. “We could add a couple of people to that and make athletics their sole job. They would be the ones to determine who gets the green light to play and who doesn’t.

“I understand how important it is to have these questions answered. To not have background information on a child is inviting disaster, especially in these hot, humid days where the heat index is 110 degrees.”

There is great value in high school sports, but as the tragedy of Hezekiah Walters proved, proper procedure must be followed both for safety and potential liability.

Given everything at stake, I think Lynn Gray’s idea merits serious consideration. Having specialists take over the complicated but vital question of athletic eligibility could improve the process and keep kids off the field who shouldn’t be there.

That might prevent another tragedy.

Isn’t that the most important thing?

Contact Joe Henderson at JoeHTampa@gmail.com.