BRADENTON -- New legislative bills could allow free agency to run rampant in the realm of Florida high school athletics, according to Roger Dearing, the executive director of the Florida High School Athletic Association.
Dearing addressed the media in a 37-minute conference call Tuesday. The topics were Senate Bill 1164, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and House Bill 1279, sponsored by State Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha.
The passing of such bills would have an effect on how the association conducts investigations, as well as the handing down of punishments.
The measures say the FHSAA would have a maximum of 90 days to complete an investigation of a student-athlete the association suspected of being ineligible, and a final ruling would be handed down by a judge. If the student is declared eligible, the FHSAA would absorb all the attorney fees.
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The FHSAA would not be able to contract or pay for more than 520 hours of work for any investigation, and the burden would be placed on the FHSAA to "demonstrate clear and convincing evidence the student is ineligible," the bills read.
"We truly believe these bills were submitted by legislators that were well-mean
ing and who listened to a small group of individuals who were declared ineligible," Dearing said. "These bills undermine our ability to enforce the rules."
Consequently, Dearing said he believes the bills would allow some schools in Florida to become "recruiting-frenzied sports giants."
Joining Dearing and FHSAA Chief Financial Officer Linda Robertson on Tuesday were former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Mike Alstott and Reidel Anthony. Alstott is the head football coach at St. Petersburg Northside Christian, and Anthony is the offensive coordinator at Belle Glades Glades Central.
Both ex-players turned coaches agreed the bills could damage the integrity of high school sports.
"I understand free agency; it was in the NFL. And I understand recruiting; that was in college," Alstott said. "At the same time, that's not what high school football is all about."
Going before a judge could take "months, sometimes years," Dearing said. In the interim, the student-athlete in question may continue to play.
And if the student is declared ineligible, the bills state his or team would not have to forfeit any contests unless the coach or school was aware of the violations.
"Our association of the 800-member schools and those people that represent them, they're not only concerned about the kids on that team, they're concerned about all the other children on all the other teams that did play by the rules and obeyed rules and were legitimately eligible," Dearing said. "And yet they had to play against a team that had ineligible players. It's not fair to those kids."
Perhaps of more dire consequence to the FHSAA is the measure calling for the association to slice in half the money it makes from member dues and gate receipts.
Robertson said while the FHSAA gets nothing from regular-season games, it makes its money during the state playoffs and championship games. Fifty percent of its income comes from the postseason gates, Robertson said, while 3 percent comes from dues, and last year, just 6 percent came from fines.
"People think we're a fine-driven organization," she said.
Cutting the revenue stream wouldn't just hurt the FHSAA, Robertson said, but its member schools, as well. Of the money generated by postseason events, she said 15 percent goes to the association. while 85 percent goes to the schools.
"One example I point to is last year, $600,000 was generated from fees from umpires and officials," Robertson said. "To cut that in half is a little short-sighted. It would mean we would not be able to provide training for them, it would mean we would not be able to offer services for their certification. The sections of revenue that were cut or capped have ties to specific services for the state of Florida.
"I told a reporter last week, 'Five years ago, we held a state championship game in a high school stadium. Today, we will be having the baseball championships at jetBlue Park (the Boston Red Sox spring training home in Fort Myers) coming up in May.' The quality of our events would suffer."
Floridians For Government Accountability, Inc. recently created Access for Student Athletes Coalition, a group calling for the FHSAA to support the bills.
"Current law and this new legislation would not allow for illegal recruiting, nor for wholesale free agency, as the FHSAA claims," Sen. Stargel said in a statement released by the group. "This proposal would not prevent the FHSAA from fulfilling their primary role; however, it would help combat their 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."
Dearing doesn't agree. And by doing so, said he is doing right by the association's members.
"The people in the office don't make the rules -- we just enforce them," he said. "The rules were actually made by the member schools out there, and those are the rules they want to enforce."