TALLAHASSEE Republicans in the Florida Legislature, driven by a philosophy of “school choice,” are once again trying to expand options for more than 285,000 high school student-athletes, while overhauling the authority of the non-profit organization designated by the state to oversee high school athletics.
Some lawmakers say student-athletes should be able to transfer schools and have immediate eligibility to participate in sports programs — something they’re barred from doing now because of a Florida High School Athletic Association rule intended to combat recruiting.
Over opposition of coaches and athletic directors, the Legislature has attempted for a couple years to lift that rule through state law while also making it easier for student-athletes to switch to programs of their choosing. Lawmakers came close to achieving their goal last spring, but the proposal was derailed by the abrupt end to the 2015 session.
The plan has resurfaced in new forms for 2016, and athletic officials maintain their fear that the Legislature’s desire to bring “school choice” into high school athletics will consequently legitimize and encourage prohibited practices — such as recruiting and the ability for players to shop around for the best programs.
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“What happens when everybody’s eligible everywhere, it creates havoc and opens the door for epidemic cheating to go on,” said Roger Dearing, a former Manatee County schools superintendent who oversees the FHSAA.
We shouldn’t impede choice.
State Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland
House and Senate bills already are advancing through committees on unanimous votes, but FHSAA officials and some coaches and athletic directors remain resistant to the Legislature’s plans. The FHSAA supports the Senate version (SB 684) because it cracks down on recruiting, but Dearing said there are still elements of concern in it.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland — the lead sponsor of the Senate bill — dismisses the FHSAA’s current limitations on transfer students as a “throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater kind of fix.” Under current rules, transfer students have to wait until the next sports season to play as a safeguard to ensure they weren’t recruited to switch schools.
Her legislation with Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz would allow students to participate as soon as they arrive at a new school.
It also goes far beyond that. It would allow any student to enroll in any school in the state so long as the school has space for them and their parents can provide transportation — a provision that has athletic officials worried that families would be more able to shop around for the top programs.
Stargel suggests it would create socio-economic equality. She said “more affluent families have that opportunity” already to switch schools for whatever motivation — including athletic opportunities for students — so this gives all families that option.
“We shouldn’t impede choice,” she said, adding that it wouldn’t just benefit standout athletes. “There may be a situation where you have the reverse: where everyone is a star football player and my kid’s so-so but wants to get off the bench. He might go to a school where he would have the opportunity to play.”
Some athletic directors and coaches know from experience how families already work the system in their favor. They say the legislation could exacerbate the problem, and they question the Legislature’s involvement.
“You have to have some rules,” said Mark Schusterman, athletic director for Gulliver Preparatory School in Kendall. “If you don’t have rules, it becomes a free-for-all. I can tell you cases where kids have gone and changed schools to play football here and basketball there. ... It’s a new world today.”
If you don’t have rules, it becomes a free-for-all.
Mark Schusterman, athletic director for Gulliver Preparatory School
Members of the Florida House, meanwhile, have their own ideas regarding student-athletes and school choice. Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah — the lead architect there — is touting his proposal as an easier sell this session, because he said lawmakers have compromised with the FHSAA on the flashpoint issues.
“The majority of things, we have agreed upon to make sure we modernize our rules for athletics going forward,” Diaz told the House education budget committee on Monday, shortly before the panel voted to send the bill to the House floor. “Ninety-nine percent of the things that are in the bill have been discussed and agreed upon with the association.”
Not at all, Dearing told the Herald/Times.
In fact, Dearing said the FHSAA opposes most of the key elements in Diaz’s bill (HB 7039), because it “opens the door to recruiting and free agency” of student-athletes, while the Senate plan is “more workable.”
If a student is home-schooled or their school doesn’t offer a particular sport, Diaz’s proposal would let that student choose any school in their district — or one in another district, subject to controlled open enrollment — that offered that sport.
Once a student picked their school for athletics, that would be their school for extra-curricular activities going forward, which Diaz said would prevent the student from shopping around among teams.
But Dearing and Schusterman said that system would be all-too-easily susceptible to abuse through loopholes.
The FHSAA welcomes letting students participate in sports if their school doesn’t offer them, but Dearing argues students should be limited to their home-zoned area — not given whatever option they want.
“Athletes of a sport that don’t have it at their school are all going to pick the same powerhouse school” to play at, Dearing said.
Dearing said a fundamental part of athletic participation is representing one’s school and hometown community so, he said, student-athletes shouldn’t be able to play just anywhere — not unlike elected officials when they run for office.
“People are elected to the areas where they live to represent their community,” he said. “Why don’t we change the laws to let people run for election anywhere they can win? It’s the same thing.”
Amid the debate, though, the FHSAA and lawmakers agree on one key point: a crackdown on recruiting.
The FHSAA has 800 member schools with 285,000 student-athletes across 32 sports.
Dearing told a Senate panel last fall that state law had hamstrung the FHSAA’s ability to prove instances of recruiting because the legal level of proof required was the equivalent to proving a murder. The organization proved just three recruiting cases in the last couple years, he told the Herald/Times last week.
Lawmakers heeded his comments. Both the House and Senate bills call for lowering that threshold, so only a simple majority of evidence is needed to prove recruiting.
There’s also harsher punishment proposed for coaches and school employees who recruit: a fine of at least $5,000 for a first offense with escalating penalties up to the loss of their teaching license for a third offense.
Stargel said she hopes that provision “dispels the fear of recruiting” by providing balance.
But there are holes. The proposed penalties don’t cover outside offenders, such as alumni or boosters who don’t work for the school — the most common instigators of recruiting, Dearing said. The consequence in those cases would be teams that field a recruited athlete would forfeit all victories and titles they accumulated, a punishment already levied by the FHSAA when players are found to have been ineligible.
Stargel, Diaz and other lawmakers argue student-athletes should be treated no differently than students who participate in other extra-curricular activities, like band or drama. Those students could change schools for academic reasons, and no one bats an eye, they say.
But athletic officials, are emphatic: Scholars and athletes are not the same.
You’ve never seen anybody recruit somebody for being a trombone player.
Roger Dearing, FHSAA executive director
Some student-athletes — particularly in high-profile sports like football, basketball and baseball — are under the microscope of college coaches and recruiting services starting at a young age. Every game is tracked and their futures are prognosticated and debated by rabid fan bases.
The same cannot be said for the captain of the debate team or the president of the science club, athletic officials say.
“You’ve never seen anybody recruit somebody for being a trombone player,” Dearing said.
Dearing and other athletic officials also caution lawmakers not to view high school athletics or other extracurricular activities in the same vein they do academic choice.
The Florida Constitution requires the state to provide a free and quality public education, but participating in extracurricular activities is a separate privilege, not one in the same right, Dearing said.
“I still think athletics is something you earn,” agreed Schusterman. “I know kids that have been in five different softball programs in five years because the parent wasn’t happy. ... The bottom line is education should come first.”
Stargel said she agrees with that principle, but “I’m not the parent of all kids.”