TAMPA — Peter Hobson remembers having kids who play sports — a son who was in football at Jesuit High and the University of Pennsylvania and two daughters in softball and rowing at Academy of the Holy Names.
So the 62-year-old Tampa lawyer has a soft spot for student athletes deemed ineligible to play sports and for the parents who seek him out when they consider fighting the decision — before a local school board, the state association that governs high school sports, or even a judge.
“It’s all about the students,” Hobson said. “If I didn’t believe this was an important aspect of their education, I wouldn’t be doing these cases.”
In 2012, Hobson began representing some football players denied eligibility to play at state powerhouse Armwood High School in Seffner.
Since then, at least nine local families, and a total of about 25 across the state, have come to him with similar issues.
At the heart of many of these cases is Hobson’s belief that a school district’s athletic policy governing student transfers contradicts state law.
In his view, the law says students are eligible to play sports for the school where they are first enrolled for the start of the school year.
Hillsborough County expands on that in its policy, saying students who transfer to a high school other than the one they’re designated to attend must sit out one calendar year before playing sports.
The Florida High School Athletics Association says the state rule is meant only as a baseline, allowing individual school districts to adopt stricter policies.
There’s a lot at stake at getting it right. Armwood High, for example, had its 2011 state championship stripped by the Florida High School Athletic Association after a finding that five players had falsified information to gain admission to the school.
To Hobson, there is no gray area.
“Whatever the school board enacts has to be aligned with what the Legislature says on the very same topic.”
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A member of the bar in Florida and Pennsylvania, practicing general law, Hobson has been in business more than 30 years. Past clients have included former Major League pitcher Dwight Gooden and NFL linebacker Ray Lewis, both of whom grew up in the Tampa area.
Tacked to the wall in Hobson’s downtown Tampa office is a list of school athletics eligibility rules from each of the 50 states.
Hobson is coming off a recent victory in the eligibility arena with a ruling Friday by Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Bernard Silver that a pair of sisters fighting to play softball at Jefferson High School should be allowed to participate while they await the outcome of their lawsuit against the school district.
The Fernandez sisters, senior Kayla Jo and sophomore Justine, transferred to the South Tampa school for the start of the school year and are suing the district for prohibiting them from playing. The girls attended Blake High School last school year.
In the suit, they claim they should be able to play because they were enrolled at Jefferson the first day of school.
Hillsborough’s policy is still fairly new.
It was put into place in fall 2012, the year after Armwood High School was stripped of its football title as well as 26 victories dating back to 2010 and fined thousands of dollars.
Everyone who transfers to another high school, whether it’s by moving or taking advantage of the district’s school choice program, is ineligible to play sports unless cleared during an appeal by the Transferring Student-Athletes Participation Committee. Members include school district and community appointees.
“The policy was developed based on a large number of student athletes transferring and the issues that can ensue because of that,” district athletic director Lanness Robinson said. “The policy was developed to address a need. The board approved it because they saw the same need. If it needs tweaking, that would be up to the desires of the board.”
The policy has been discussed extensively at school board meetings and workshops this school year.
The board recently made some changes to add flexibility, broadening the list of exemptions students can claim to include more in the way financial, academic or family hardships; military orders; and transfers to and from a charter or private school to the school they’re designated to attend.
Hobson said more flexibility is “going to make it worse.” The revised policy actually makes it easier for students and their parents to find ways of bending the rules, he said.
“Parents are as guilty as the schools in creating this mess,” he said.
Hobson said that along with aligning policy with state law, the school board should hire a consultant to help define best practices for determining athletic eligibility.
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Because of Friday’s ruling, the Fernandez sisters were able to participate in the first softball game of the season Tuesday.
“They’re over the moon,” Hobson said. “You don’t realize how it wears on them and how emotionally upset they can become as a result of these types of actions taken by the school board and the follow-up litigation. When a judge enters an order like this, they might not understand the fine legal points, but are certainly very happy to return to the field and play with their teammates.”
In addition to the Fernandez case, Hobson has been involved in two similar lawsuits this school year — one settled and one pending.
In November, Sickles High School senior Justin Fragnito filed suit against the district claiming he was wrongly deemed ineligible to play football there. The district, following a closed session of the school board, granted Fragnito eligibility to play in return for dropping the lawsuit.
Hobson also represents a Sunlake High School student, soccer player Michael Mazza, in a suit against the school board in Pasco County. A request for an injunction was denied in circuit court and the case is on appeal. Pasco’s policy on transfer eligibility, enacted this year, mirrors Hillsborough’s.
Parents interviewed who have worked with Hobson say they appreciate his help and agree he always has a student’s best interest at heart.
“Peter Hobson continually fights for justice,” said John Nold, whose son Hobson has counseled. “He fights for the student.”
Gabe Nold, who graduated from Armwood last year, is of the first students Hobson represented.
Nold was denied eligibility to participate with the football and wrestling teams four times in his senior year by the Florida High School Athletic Association. The principal determined he and several other students filed false residency information after transferring there. He was not one of the five students who cost Armwood its championship.
Hobson argued that evidence presented to the FHSAA was insufficient to show Nold falsified the information, filing a lawsuit against the association. A temporary injunction was granted in January 2013, allowing Nold to participate in the remainder of the state wrestling tournaments that year.
“We feel that civil judges understand the injustice that the FHSAA is causing,” John Nold said.
None of the students Hobson has represented saw the case through to the end and ultimate victory in court.
That’s because the case becomes moot after the main goal — eligibility — is achieved, through an injunction or a settlement.
“I’m happy to say,” Hobson added, “that most who have challenged it have prevailed.”