After years of nibbling around the edges, Florida lawmakers are out to de-fang the state’s powerful high school athletics association. The association has been a target for detractors who say its too rigid.
Stewart Weiss of the Sunshine State Athletic Conference, doesn’t hide his dislike of the Florida High School Athletics Association. Weiss says the association has been hard to work with and wouldn’t let his conference into its playoffs:
“I reached out to FHSAA last year and begged them. The only way I got a conference with Dr. Dearing was a three-way conversation through Senator [Tom] Lee’s office, which set it up. And he told me, ‘absolutely not’ we’re not going to get one. Nothing to interfere with FHSAA’s playoffs.”
Rodger Dearing is Executive Director of the FHSAA. The Association has been under close scrutiny for the past two years. Lakeland Republican Kelli Stargel led two previous efforts to strip the FHSAA of some of its power. One proposal would have let private schools start their own association and another dealt with player eligibility. In 2013, Stargel said the way the FHSAA determined whether students were eligible was unfair.
“A girl in my district had to leave private school because her family couldn’t afford the private school, and was ineligible at her zoned school because she had played a summer league that was affiliated with the coach at her public high school. That student lost all four of her appeals.”
Student eligibility has remained a sore spot. Stargel is carrying a bill that overhauls the FHSAA. Several Central and South Florida school districts have experienced problems with students switching schools to play sports. But other, seemingly innocent disputes—like foreign exchange students initially being deemed ineligible to play—have also arisen.
The House is now out with its FHSAA reform bill. The proposal limits the ways students can be declared ineligible and allows parents to choose an outside party to settle disputes. It also allows private school and home school students to transfer to any school inside or outside of district lines—but Democratic Representative Reggie Fullwood questions whether that opens the door for even more recruiting, which is already a problem.
“Don’t you see this kind of situation where it’s much easier for coaches to recruit students who are at these specialty schools versus now where you still have to go to the school in your zipcode, or zone?” He asked.
Proponents say the bill only reflects what is currently happening. And they liken the language to another bill moving through the legislature that would allow students to attend any school in any district—as long as there is space available. The measure also calls for a sunset provision which could allow the FHSAA to be replaced by another non-profit organization-- something the FHSAA’s lobbyist John Mixon thinks is unfair.
“We think that’s rather arbitrary, and as a representative democracy—if it’s violating people’s rights and not looking out for the best interest of students, it should be removed. But it should come back to this legislature," Mixon said.
The House Education Committee’s bill makes significant changes to the way the association runs—like revamping the governing board to include public schools, private schools, parents and charters. Schools could elect to have some sports under the FHSAA and other programs in other organizations. House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole warned the bill was coming.
"I want kids to play sports," she says. "If I get the opportunity to move to a better zip code and it’s the middle the year, or before the end of a game, I should have the right to do that," she told the committee during a February meeting.
Colleges and universities are scouting, and parents want their kids have a chance for a future in the big leagues—recruiting starts early and in high school—it’s not just a game.