When the Florida High School Athletic Association disqualified the top-ranked Krop High School boys' basketball team from the state playoffs in 2011, it had uncovered that several players, including a Bahamian-born guard, were ineligible to play for the northeast Miami-Dade high school team.
The scandal led to the ouster of legendary coach Shakey Rodriguez, the demotion of the school's principal, a three-year probation for the basketball program and fines that topped $20,000.
This year, a state lawmaker wants to scale back the FHSAA's power by easing some of the restrictions on transferring schools and weakening the association's ability to conduct investigations. Roger Dearing, the FHSAA's executive director, argues that the legislation would turn local high schools into pro sports franchises by unleashing "recruiting-frenzied sports giants" as top schools bid for top athletes.
Not so, says state Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, in support of her bill. It would "help combat [the FHSAA's] predisposition to consider students as guilty until proven innocent, and would establish true due process and rights for student athletes, which the current system of conducting investigations clearly lacks," she says.
Recruiting is explicitly forbidden in Florida high-school sports. But that doesn't mean
it doesn't happen. At Hernando High, north of Tampa, an FHSAA investigation last year revealed that the principal had allowed a football player to stay over at his house. The student had an address in a different county.
The FHSAA has drawn criticism for its investigations into schools accused of breaking the rules. The association, which represents more than 800 different schools in 32 different sports programs, has also taken heat for being overly punitive, especially when it comes to enforcement at private schools and among home-schooled students.
The controversy has prompted a boxing-match-like fight in Tallahassee that has gone several rounds.
Last year, Stargel spearheaded an effort to create a separate athletics association for students enrolled in private, virtual and online schools. It won support early in the session, but was never written into law.
Her bill this year seeks to limit the FHSAA's power by easing some of the restrictions on student transfers. It would require an administrative law judge to weigh in before the FHSAA could deem a student ineligible. As a result, students could continue participating in athletic programs during the months-long investigations into their eligibility.
Stargel's proposal would also reshape the FHSAA. She wants to expand the size of its governing board from 16 to 25 members by adding new seats to be filled by the Senate president, House speaker and state education commissioner. Currently, most board members are named by participating schools.
Another provision would limit the FHSAA executive director's salary and prevent him or her from receiving a car or cell-phone allowance.
The House version, filed by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, takes direct aim at Dearing's job. It requires the state education commissioner to appoint the FHSAA's executive director.
Dearing, once the school superintendent in Manatee County, believes the idea came from the parents of students who have been deemed ineligible.
"Unfortunately, some of those parents who want their children to be able to play at any costs have contacted their legislators," he said.
If the bill passes, Dearing said, it would "threaten the integrity of Florida high-school athletics," and possibly hurt the non-profit FHSAA's bottom line by limiting the fines the association could impose.
"If there's less revenue, there's less money for us to provide services to kids," Dearing said, noting that the FHSAA organizes interscholastic tournaments and events.
The bill has a realistic chance at becoming law this year. Although the Senate version hasn't started moving, the House version won the unanimous approval of an education subcommittee last week.
Some parents have come out in support of the measure. But already, a handful of high-profile coaches are playing defense.
Reidel Anthony, a former pro football player who also coached at Glades Central, made the case that by watering down the restrictions on transfers, the bill would lead to open recruiting.
That, he said, is "the last thing that these students need."
"It's hard enough to tell these kids to keep a level head," Anthony said. "The idea that a kid could live in one part of town, play football in another part of town, and transfer to play basketball at another school - that's not what high-school sports are supposed to be all about."