FHSAA slapped with legislative penalty bill

Mar 8, 2012

A bill that would punish coaches for “unethical recruiting” of student athletes has narrowly passed out of the Senate and is making its way to Governor Rick Scott. As Sascha Cordner reports, critics say the bill will unfairly impact the way the Florida High School Athletic Association currently governs that type of situation.

Republican Senator Stephen Wise says he just wants to make sure that high school athletes who transfer schools do not get penalized unfairly, just because they’re suspected of transferring schools due to the recruitment of a coach.

“Let’s say it’s in the Summer time, and it’s a Tennis program. And, you’ve got a great Tennis coach, and the student is playing with a team, and what happens is that student says ‘boy, that coach is really good,’ and they’re at such and such school, so they transfer to that school. And, what they find out is, the coach asks them to come over to their school, they can’t do that, and what happens is the student gets punished for that and is not allowed to play, may never get a scholarship to a university, because the coach went out and recruited that student off the team in the Summer time. That’s wrong.”

So, Wise is hoping to change all that with a bill that has several provisions, including one that would require a coach to reimburse the school for any fines if it is found the coach violated any of the Florida High School Athletic Association rules as it relates to recruiting people from other schools.

The legislation also prevents a high school athlete from becoming ineligible from playing in any sporting events for recruiting violations, unless a student or parent falsified documents about a school transfer or accepted compensation for recruitment. Other provisions include changing the way investigations into recruiting violations are now handled by the Florida High School Athletic Association.

But, Wise’s bill received opposition from several of his Republican colleagues, like Senator Steve Oelrich. He says he doesn’t feel like the Legislature should get involved in a situation that’s already being handled by the Florida High School Athletic Association.

“What I suspect happens is a constituent at home complains about some sort of a situation where their children were perhaps denied activity on the athletic level and then they call their Representative, they call their Senator, and maybe we get one side of the story. I’ve been to the meetings of the Florida High School Athletic Association and I was very impressed about the way they handled the hearings and how they go through a whole protocol.”

The bill also came under fire from Democratic Senator Bill Montford, who’s also the head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and a former member of the athletic association board. The Tallahassee lawmaker says the protocols currently in place are working well.

“If a child moves from school A to school B, for legitimate reasons, that child is eligible. Now, if a member school raises a question, a concern about recruiting, then obviously there will be an investigation. And that investigation is conducted under the authority of the board that this legislature put in place. It has worked exceptionally well. Is it perfect? No. Is it better than the system than what’s in the proposal today. It’s better by far.”

But, Republican Representative Thad Altman of Melbourne disagrees. He says the association barely does anything to coaches suspected of “unethical recruiting.” Yet, he says that same board unfairly punishes schools and student athletes.

“The way things are structured now we’re discriminating against high school athletes. This bill is about access. It’s about school access. We received testimony that many schools because of excessive fines for small violations were unable to even pay the fines. So their kids were denied access in sporting events.”

And, Republican Senator John Thrasher also felt the organization is becoming too stringent with how they hand out penalties:

“It’s an organization that’s pretty autonomous. I mean, we [the Legislature] have an oversight of it. They kind of act like the accuser, the judge, and the jury. They levied over $400,000 of fines last year. Now, I don’t know whether they were legitimate or not under their rules. I assume they think they were. But, they rule with a hammer.”

But, Senator Montford countered there’s a reason that the association had to “drop the hammer on the fines.”

“Because one of the complaints that you had in the mid-1990s was that the fines that were levied were so small that the boosters said ‘don’t worry about it. You go on and do it’ to the schools, ‘and we’ll cover the fine.’ So, one of the concerns that the Legislature had was ‘you [FHSAA] need to put in place a fine structure that will get their attention, and get their attention in a way that they would have to sell a heck of a lot of hamburgers to cover that fine.’ ”

Still, Bill sponsor Senator Wise says his measure is about making sure kids do not get disenfranchised because of bad coaches:

“This is not a bad bill. It’s not draconian. It does the right thing for the students and it will punish the coaches because the coaches will pay the fine and not the school or out of the tuition that the parents are paying.”

The Florida Senate passed the bill 21 to 18 with bi-partisan support and opposition. It now heads to the Governor.