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Bills would curb FHSAA's power over athlete eligibility rules

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: April 10, 2013 at 07:56 AM
TALLAHASSEE -

The House Education Committee voted to reel in the Florida High School Athletic Association on Tuesday by giving student athletes a “presumption of eligibility” and placing new limits on the scope of investigations.

Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, said his bill would be fairer for students but still allow the Gainesville-based association to prevent “recruiting” of athletes from one school to another. He said there are situations beyond a young athlete's control, such as divorce or a family move, that can cause him or her to switch teams, and the presumption of cheating should not be up to the student to disprove.

“The presumption of eligibility is a new orientation that hopefully would advance this process and make it less onerous for students, who are sometimes challenged under current laws and bylaws of the FHSAA for eligibility questions,” Metz told the committee.

The Senate sponsor of a companion bill, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has said the FHSAA's sanctioning of Armwood High School's football team and some of its players were among reasons for her involvement. The sanctioning body in June stripped Armwood of the 2011 Class 6A state championship and its runner-up title from 2010. It also fined the school $12,743 after it determined parents of five Armwood football players falsified residency information to get their children into the Seffner school.

Metz's bill in the House requires an audit by the state Auditor General's Office and directs the FHSAA to review its bylaws, policies and administrative procedures. The bill limits investigations to 90 days, Metz said, “so the entire school year is not consumed” by a complaint that a student is ineligible to play at a new school. Those investigations would have to be done by licensed private investigators.

The bill clarifies some language on approval of transfers by school boards and public schools, dealing with enrollment at the beginning of a school year or enrollment prior to beginning of team practice. Schools could grant waivers based on “the best interests of the student,” Metz said.

“Life changes occur with a student, where maybe they weren't enrolled at a particular school at the beginning of the year, but their parents got divorced or something else forced them to change schools midyear,” Metz said. “We don't want to just willy-nilly say they can't ever play for the rest of that year, if those situations justify a waiver.”

The FHSAA opposes the bill but did not fight it in the committee. Metz's bill cleared two committees without a dissenting vote last month and passage seems certain in the House. Stargel's companion bill in the Senate, however, has not had its first committee hearing.

Stargel, in an interview last month, said the genesis behind sponsoring bills to amend FHSAA bylaws grew from reading articles about FHSAA investigations into programs such as Armwood High's football team. “I want to make sure students are eligible to try out and participate if they've done nothing wrong,” she said. “If the school gives them permission, they can participate.”

Roger Dearing, executive director of the FHSAA, said the legislation is an unnecessary intrusion on the organization's ability to keep games honest. He said more than 260,000 students participate in high school sports and only 72 were ruled ineligible last year. Dearing said the FHSAA routinely grants eligibility waivers for athletes who have to move for family reasons, or whose graduation is delayed a year or more by illness or injury.

“That's hardly being guilty until proved innocent,” said Dearing, interviewed separately after the meeting. “The purpose is to create an atmosphere of fair play and integrity in sports.”

Another common problem, Metz said, is a student being involved in a summer league, meeting a coach from another sport at another school, and later deciding to go to the other school and play for the coach. Under his bill, he said, “you would not presume recruitment” by the visiting coach.

“That's reasonable activity, innocent activity, a different spot,” said Metz. “Just the fact that they're there in the summertime shouldn't presume that they're ineligible due to recruitment. The overall prohibition of active recruitment is still maintained.”

Lobbyist Jon Moyle said he has argued issues in courtrooms and before administrative hearing officers, and there is always a presumption that both sides have a case to make. He said the scales are tilted toward the FHSAA, though, as he found out when representing teammates of his son in prep sports disputes.

“You go through their process; you're appearing before them,” Moyle said. “You have given them by statute the power to regulate kids in high school athletics in the state. That is a de facto monopoly.”

Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City, said her husband is a wrestling coach so she has seen the FHSAA's power for years. She said the FHSAA is “a quasi-governmental agency” with no accountability to the state.

“I think we need to reel those association folks in,” she said. “They have been guilty on a number of occasions of stepping over their boundaries.”

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