Bills in the Florida Legislature would limit the scope and power of the organization that regulates high school athletes, with supporters calling them a victory for student rights. But the regulatory group, the Florida High School Athletic Association, is saying the measures could pave the way for unfairness on the field and reduced quality of tournaments.
A couple of years ago, the Florida High School Athletic Association ruled that five high school football players in Lakeland were ineligible to play after they transferred from one school to another. An investigation revealed three of their parents had falsified residency records to make it seem like they lived in the school district when they didn’t.
Athletic Association Executive Director Roger Dearing said, “And one of the parents of a child who was ruled ineligible is a very close friend of one of the state legislators who’s in a very influential position right now.”
Dearing said, state Sen. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) is sponsoring a bill that would chip away at the association’s power. Stargel also sponsored last year’s controversial bill allowing students to transfer from one school to another mid-year and still be eligible to play. That became law just before the current school year.
Dearing said, Stargel and Rep. Larry Metz (R-Groveland), who’s sponsoring similar legislation in the House, are creating a bad precedent about how the government interacts with nonprofits like the Athletic Association.
“For the state Legislature to start adopting particular rules for private, non-for-profit organizations about how they can generate their revenue, how they spend their revenue, who’s on their board of directors, who their CEO is, it’s bad political practice,” Dearing said.
Metz’s bill would change the makeup of the High School Athletic Association’s board of directors to include more government appointees. It would also cut its budget, as much as 50 percent in some areas. And association Chief Financial Officer Linda Robertson said, that would ultimately hurt student athletes.
“Some of what we spend the money on is to train our officials and our umpires, to train our coaches. And then to turn around and provide a state championship that we think is second to none in the state of Florida. We have really great championship events at professional fields and arenas,” she said.
Robertson said the association shares 85 percent of money from post-season tournaments with the member schools. And the association provides help for schools who have trouble affording the trip to their state championships.
But supporters of the bills, like a group called the Access for Student Athletes Coalition, paint a darker picture of the Athletic Association. A press release from the Coalition says the association overreaches its authority and uses “sanctioned bullying” when conducting investigations.
But Dearing said, that’s unfounded.
“Investigation is far from the biggest thing that this association does. So that part is completely blown out of proportion in the bill,” he said.
Dearing said, he’s concerned about how the new bills would weaken the organization’s power to investigate.
He said, “It limits our investigators to what hours they can operate. For example, many of our games are on Saturday, Saturday nights. Well, according to the law, they can only investigate Monday through Friday, from 8 to 5. I mean, really?”
The new bills would also put a higher burden on the association to prove violations of rules and would require all ineligibility decisions to be reviewed by an administrative law judge.