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Sunday, Dec 21, 2014

Don’t sack the FHSAA

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Few people who have tangled with the Florida High School Athletic Association remember the experience fondly.

The FHSAA’s reputation for being oppressive is well documented in complaints from parents and athletic programs that come under its thumb.

But that’s no reason to adopt legislation that would drastically alter the way high school athletics are governed. The FHSAA may be far from perfect, but it’s a neutral agency that provides needed oversight for high school athletics.

If enacted, legislation being considered by lawmakers in Tallahassee would limit the FHSAA’s ability to investigate student athletes accused of shopping around for a school with the best athletic program. Opponents of the legislation say it would open an era of free agency in high school sports and create an uneven playing field in districts across the state.

Other provisions in the legislation would fundamentally weaken a system that keeps each of the state’s high schools playing by the same rules. The legislation would put school districts in charge of determining residency and transfer approvals, force the FHSAA to bring contested eligibility rulings before a judge, cut the FHSAA’s revenues, change the makeup of its board, cut the executive director’s pay, and potentially eliminate the agency in 2017.

The legislation’s supporters say the measures are needed to end the heavy-handed tactics of the FHSAA, an independent nonprofit founded in 1920 to govern interscholastic athletics. They say the agency presumes guilt and then forces those it accuses of wrongdoing to prove their innocence, sometimes at a considerable hardship for the families involved.

No question, that mindset needs to end. And several common-sense provisions in the legislation are worth pursuing. Among them are requirements that a thorough audit be performed, that FHSAA investigators maintain certain qualifications, and that the targets of investigations be notified within days of opening the investigation. Student athletes should be entitled to due process.

The legislation would also expand the opportunities for students at charter schools and those being home-schooled to play a sport offered at public or private schools.

But reading the legislation makes it clear the sponsors of these bills — Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Republican from Lakeland, and Rep. Larry Metz, a Republican from Lake County — are intent on flushing the FHSAA out of the pocket and body slamming it to the turf, effectively knocking it out of the game.

This isn’t the first time the FHSAA has been under fire from lawmakers representing families and schools that end up on the wrong end of an eligibility decision. In two high-profile cases, Armwood and Lakeland high schools were found in recent years to have violated eligibility rules and paid a hefty price. Although the findings and subsequent penalties in those investigations were ultimately correct, the methods the FHSAA used in arriving at those decisions left bitter feelings behind.

The FHSAA needs to recognize its institutional culture needs to change. That culture is a big reason the legislation is moving through the Legislature this year. The measure passed in the House this week and is now before the Senate.

A little comeuppance would do the FHSAA some good. But although we support some of the accountability measures in the bills, the legislation goes too far in gutting the FHSAA’s authority and should not become law.

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