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FHSAA Overhaul Bill Gets A Last Minute Lifeline In The Senate

Florida lawmakers are paying a lot of attention to high school sports this year. A proposal overhauling the organization that regulates the athletes eligibility is now moving in the Senate, after being delayed several weeks. Groups opposed to the bill say it opens the door for cheating and aggressive recruiting—something frowned upon in high school sports, but supporters say the Florida High School Athletics Association has grown too big for its britches, and needs some limits to its power.

At the center of the fight over the Florida High School Athletics Association is how much say and authority the group should have. For two years Republican Senator Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland) has sponsored bills to reduce the scope of the organization in regulating high school sports. Some say the bill is a response to an incident where the FHSAA deemed some Lakeland football players ineligible after their parent’s forged documents claiming they had moved. One person involved was an associate of Stargel’s, but Monday the Senator denied the accusation.

“This bill is in no way, as stated in a memo by the FHSAA, a vindictive response to the FHSAA in defense of the five kids at Lakeland High School who were deemed ineligible," she said.

Part of the bill revises the way the FHSAA treats transfer students. Stargel’s arguments center on the way the group deems students eligible and ineligible to participate in sports.

“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.”   

Stargel’s bill would make it easier for student athletes to transfer schools and still be able to participate. It would let local school boards approve the transfers, and increase the burden of proof for declaring students ineligible. Supporters like Tallahassee attorney John Moyle, who has represented students before the FHSAA and administrative law judges, says that hasn’t happened before:

“Somebody who is charged with a crime, you have the ability to go in front of a judge or jury—an independent trier of fact," he said. "The way the system is currently crafted with the FHSAA, you go in front of a tribunal that is comprised of members of the association. So you’re not getting an independent trier of fact. This bill changes that. And I think it’s a good thing.”   

But former FHSAA board member Bob West says the perception that students are being blocked from participating in school sports is inaccurate.

 "Last year there were 263,000 students that participated in athletics in Florida. Less than 80 were ruled ineligible.” 

A companion measure to Stargel’s bill is up for a full House vote, but was stalled in the Senate until this week. Most legislative committees have stopped meeting and proposals left in them are considered dead. But legislative leaders called upon the Senate Education Committee to meet one last time, mainly to clear Stargel’s bill and a few others. Committee Chairman Republican John Legg says he’s concerned about the effect of a final proposal once the Senate and House bills are merged.

“My understanding is there is a strike-all on the House side. This is a big bill to digest this quickly and at the end of session. My experience has been big bills at the end of session with strike-alls tend to have stuff in them that we need to take our time on," Legg said.

Despite those concerns, the Senate version of the bill cleared the committee. The proposal also  overhauls the Association’s governing board and places a salary cap on the Executive Director’s salary. Critics say those moves could be legislative overreach, because the Association was not created by the legislature and is an independent, non-profit.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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