BRADENTON -- The Florida High School Athletic Association has a new ally: The National Federation of High School Associations, better known as the NFHS.
The federation board of directors passed a resolution Wednesday to side with the FHSAA against House Bill 1279 and Senate Bill 1164, which if passed, would limit the FHSAA's ability to investigate and call into question a student-athlete's eligibility and slice the association's revenue stream.
"The Florida High School Athletic Association has an elected board, and they democratically made rules that these folks who are responsible for the programs saw fit to put in place," Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director, said during a conference call Thursday, "to provide protection for all those student-athletes. So certainly, as a national organization, we understand that, we see that those things occur in other states, and it's certainly our position that what the Florida association stands for is certainly congruent with the other state associations across the country."
The bills, sponsored by state Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, and state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would give way to widespread wholesale recruiting across the state and turn student-athletes into hotly pursued free agents, said Roger Dearing, the FSHAA executive director who joined Gardner on Thursday's conference call.
Dearing pointed to one instance where a school offered a student-athlete from another school a car.
"This legislation remains a bad idea for Florida," he said, "and it remains a bad idea for high school athletics everywhere."
Dearing believes it's no coincidence Stargel and fellow Republican Seth McKeel, who also supports the legislation, are from Lakeland considering the FHSAA ruled three of the school's football players ineligible in 2011.
"We get two legislators from that county...in a vindictive-type move. I mean, where else do you see this type of legislation coming through?" Dearing said. "Whether the school is a famous powerhouse for football or a powerhouse for baseball, or has been to the district championship, all the student-athletes who those schools play have the right to know that all students are fairly and legally eligible, and meet the same requirements they do."
Dearing said of the approximately 260,000 student-athletes competing with 800 FHSAA member schools only about 2,000 had their eligibility questioned last year and the association ruled 72 ineligible.
"Of those 72, I'd be surprised if a dozen of them contacted their legislators," Dearing said. "But that's who they're listening to right now...It's the criminals that make the loudest noise. Right now, the Legislature, or these few legislators, have the ears of those kids' parents who tried to cheat and skirt around the rules because they didn't like to be told 'no.'
"Right now, we're trying to convince the Legislature this is a bad idea, this is a bad concept."
In an email to The Herald earlier this month, Metz, who sponsors HB 1279, said the legislation's purpose was to curb the FHSAA's "heavy-handed" policies. He also said the free-agency scenario Dearing fears would be "highly unlikely."
"The current FHSAA is too quick to assume that actions by student-athletes are in furtherance of cross-school recruiting," Metz wrote. "However, students can in fact leave their current schools for perfectly legitimate reasons, including fleeing from abusive coaches, parental divorce or residential change, or because they are seeking a better academic opportunity (i.e., exercising school choice). The mere fact that they are also athletes should not subject them to onerous investigations as presumed cheaters, and the bill's presumption of eligibility provision will help reverse this trend."
HB 1279, which also calls for the termination of the FHSAA in 2017, is waiting to be heard on the House floor.
Dearing hopes it does not pass. And he is not alone.
"We live in an age and a time of society where absolutely no one wants to hear 'no,'" Gardner said. "So when some governing body has to uphold rules...then those people can go to anybody they think can overturn that and get their way and say, 'yes.' And unfortunately, in this instance, they've chosen to go to the Legislature."