1. Opinion

Hillsborough football fraud and accountability

The state sanctioning body was right to strip Hillsborough County's Armwood High School of its 2011 state football title. The punishment is appropriate for fielding ineligible players who lied and schemed to play for a winning football team. But the principal and football coach also share the blame, and they should not have gotten off so easily.

The Florida High School Athletic Association took away the title this week and imposed a range of other sanctions after finding that Armwood fielded five ineligible players during its undefeated season last fall. The case was so cut-and-dried the school district didn't even put up a defense. The players' families submitted false housing leases and bogus utility bills to falsely claim residency in the Armwood district, enabling the students to play for the powerhouse team.

The families are indeed most to blame. But the school district is wrong to claim vindication merely because the sanctioning body did not catch any Armwood officials red-handed. The school ignored so many red flags in its mishandling of the case that its conduct was negligent at best. Principal Michael Ippolito and coach Sean Callahan showed no real urgency to oversee the team. How could they not expect that players would come out of the woodwork after Armwood won state runnerup the year before? How could at least three players list a fraudulent address from the same apartment complex? It is hard to believe these high school students kept this secret over the course of a season. The administration either turned a blind eye or is out of touch with its student-athletes.

These questions, of course, are irrelevant, for the sanctioning body's bylaws ultimately hold the principal responsible for "all aspects" of a school's athletics program, including the conduct of student-athletes and their families. But at Armwood, this accountability existed on paper only. The players — including those who genuinely lived inside the district — have lost their state championship. The school was fined more than $12,000 and put on three years' probation. And it is subject to spot checks for future compliance. But the principal and the coach? They'll attend a refresher course on the rules they are already paid to know and are responsible for enforcing.

This breakdown in command is one reason this year's School Board races are fast becoming a proxy referendum on MaryEllen Elia, the school superintendent. She has introduced some reforms to prevent another Armwood-type scandal. But the question is whether the district will follow through on the obligation it has long had to ensure that families are not lying to attend a coveted school. The board needs to rouse Ippolito and Callahan from radio silence and hold a serious public discussion of what went wrong.