Alan Dell

Commentary | FHSAA ruling on Lakewood Ranch tennis player shameful display of injustice

Shame on the Florida High School Athletic Association.

It's supposed to be for kids, isn't it?

Well it is not, at least based on what we saw this week.

What happened at the state tennis tournament was shameful. The FHSAA dropped the ball with Lakewood Ranch tennis standout Cari Berry.

The organization is starting to resemble the NCAA, and that's bad.

Remember the NCAA? It's the organization that likes to promote the phrase "student-athlete," when it's really about coaches and administrators and making sure they get theirs.

It happened again this week when Wisconsin men's basketball coach Bo Ryan tried to stop one of his freshmen from transferring. After a rain of pressure from outside sources, Bo relented.

But he was thinking about himself.

The pecking order for how the NCAA doles out justice is coaches, schools and then maybe the athletes.

We are starting to see the same thing in the FHSAA.

At the girls state tennis tournament, the FHSAA granted the wish of a high school coach who apparently was just thinking about winning a championship and was not going to allow anything to get in the way.

An official with the FHSAA ruled Lakewood Ranch freshman Ashley Bongart had to play No. 1 singles instead of Berry, a senior who has played No. 1 ever since her freshman year for the Mustangs and won the region title at No. 1 singles last week.

Lakewood Ranch head girls tennis coach Ed Bongart said the Barron Collier coach (Nancy Geiman) complained. The FHSAA ruled in her favor.

This was not about respecting the rights of our student-athletes. It was about helping a coach who wanted to win regardless of the circumstances.

Ashley Bongart lost in the No. 1 singles final to Barron Collier's highly touted Natalia Maynetto, and Berry won the No. 2 singles title.

It most likely would have happened either way, coach Bongart said, and Barron Collier would have won the state championship just as it did.

The FHSAA official made his ruling based on the fact Bongart was higher (26th) than Berry (45th) in the 18-and-under USTA rankings.

Berry has missed a lot of tennis this year because she almost lost her mother in an accident.

Berry is a dedicated daughter, the kind every parent would want. She has given up a scholarship to attend a Division I school and will be at State College of Florida next season so she can be at home to help her mother recover.

She hasn't played in many USTA matches, and that forced her to drop in the rankings. Berry was worried about her mom and wanted to be available to help her.

Technically, the FHSAA official might have been in the right. But morally, this decision has a bad stench. A child almost lost her mother, and you are punishing her. It sends chills up your spine.

Berry deserves a medal and instead gets a demotion.

There was no compassion in this case. It came down to an FHSAA official ceding to the wishes of a coach who wants to put state championship on her resume. This was about winning.

"It didn't matter what we told them," coach Bongart said when he tried to argue Berry's case.

Coach Bongart called it "ridiculous."

Berry took it in stride but called the decision the ruling her "stupid."

They are both right. But it is also frightening. We are talking about 15-, 16-, 17- and 18 year-olds. They are impressionable and at the mercy of adults who administer the rules.

The FHSAA was created to watch over the athletes, but this was a case of allowing a coach to maintain ownership rights to a distorted sense of justice.

Shame on you FHSAA! You are starting to look like the NCAA.

Find another role model.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2112.

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