Law to limit FHSAA powers and enhance student rights up for vote this week

April 17, 2013 

House Bill 1279 is scheduled to hit the floor of the state lawmaking body today.

If it passes sometime before the end of the week most parents and high school athletes in Florida will rejoice.

The bill or its companion must pass the Senate and go to the governor's desk for his signature. But that could be a formality.

Two distinct opponents have evolved in this fight: Parents versus the Florida High School Athletic Association.

The FHSAA was created to help student-athletes nearly a century ago, but wandered off track perhaps drunk with power.

The FHSAA has its supporters, which not surprisingly consists primarily of coaches and athletic administrators. The parents have elected officials and attorneys who have fought for athletes the organization declared ineligible.

If this legislation goes into law on its target date of July 1 the powers of the FHSAA will be dramatically curtailed. Most importantly, high school athletes in the state will no longer be considered guilty until proven innocent.

It will end injustice. Hundreds of high school students throughout the state have unfairly been denied the right to play sports over the last decade.

Cardinal Mooney basketball superstar Antonio Blakeney was a victim of this travesty of justice and missed part of his freshman season. Desante Jordan and Breanna Nice were denied the right to play basketball at Southeast High in their junior years because of a flawed system.

The FHSAA strategy is not surprising. It is selling fear and predicting chaos with high school athletes running all over the place to find the best fit.

"The changes these bills propose would undermine sportsmanship and shatter community spirit by allowing some high schools to become recruiting frenzied sports giants," FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing said in a media conference last month.

Regarding the creation of sports giants, has Mr. Dearing ever heard of St. Thomas Aquinas?

The parents are fighting for their inalienable rights. If they win, the FHSAA will be forced to follow the judicial principles set down by our forefathers.

That doesn't appear to be asking much.

Parents want their day in court if their child is deemed ineligible by the FHSAA. They want an arbitrator independent of the FHSAA to decide their case at the end of the appeal process.

That hasn't happened because the FHSAA now acts as judge, jury and executioner and the cost of going through the appeal process is too expensive for a lot of families.

Blakeney, Jordan and Nice were denied their rights because of the way the FHSAA is structured.

Dearing paints the FHSAA as a tower of morality about to be torn down. But when parents go up against a ruling leveled by his organization they are David taking on Goliath without a slingshot.

One reason parents often don't fight the FHSAA is they have to pay legal expenses.

It won't happen under HB 1279 being authored by Lake County state Rep. Larry Metz or Senate Bill 1164 proposed by state Sen. Kelli Stargel.

Under the proposed law, if the FHSAA challenges a student's athletic eligibility and loses it must pay reasonable costs and attorney fees owed by the respondents (student and parents).

"This proposal would not prevent the FHSAA from fulfilling its primary role. However, it would help combat their predisposition to consider students guilty until proven innocent and would establish true due process," Stargel said.

The burden would be on the FHSAA to demonstrate by convincing evidence that a student is ineligible. It is needed because there appears to be a sentiment in the FHSAA that its mission is to protect coaches.

"Parents have the right to move so their child can go to a better school, live in a better neighborhood and there is nothing to say they can't make that choice for better sports programs," Stargel said.

She argues correctly that the FHSAA does not have the right to say a family didn't move for the right reasons.

Last year, when HB 1403 went into law it reduced FHSAA powers over eligibility, but critics claim the organization circumvented the intent of the law.

This year's legislation should prevent that. It changes the structure of the FHSAA and allows for the Florida commissioner of education to choose the FHSAA executive director instead of the FHSAA board, which will be restructured to be more representative of the people instead of school administrators.

Parents or students who falsify enrollment and eligibility information on school transfer documents, or accept unauthorized benefits, would still be punished by the FHSAA.

Most students who transfer for athletic reasons are looking to play. If they are sitting on the bench at one school and can play at another, and their parents are willing to move, why should that be a crime?

Some want to attend a school where a coach puts a lot of time into his or her sport and in doing so improves a child's chances of obtaining a college scholarship.

Their programs often sell themselves.

There is no reason to panic if the proposed legislation passes. Schools were created to help students and our legal system was set up to protect the innocent.

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