Concerned parents, schools, coaches call “Foul!” on bills undermining high school sports

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The operations, integrity and national reputation of Florida’s renowned prep sports programs would be plunged into chaos if cynical and misguided proposals being considered by the Florida Legislature make it possible for ineligible athletes to play – and for the few coaches who would engage in unscrupulous behavior to improperly recruit across school lines, according to a coalition that includes the national president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), concerned parents, schools and coaches.

Florida Parents for Fair Play and the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) say Senate Bill 1704 and House Bill 1403 strike at the solid foundation of youth sports in Florida and represent bad political sportsmanship by tilting the state’s level playing field of competition to unfairly benefit a few would-be scofflaws.

“These bills would benefit those with a predisposition to cheat – by tearing down barriers that exist to keep those few unscrupulous coaches from improperly recruiting impressionable young athletes,” said Dr. Roger Dearing, FHSAA executive director. “Throughout its 92-year history, FHSAA has always supported fair competition.  But the extreme, inappropriate and unwise changes contained in these bills build a foundation for cheaters and undermine the framework for fairness that has served millions of young athletes for decades.”

Louis Stout, president of the national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and former Commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, warned that Florida lawmakers “should not be misled into believing that disruptive chaos is positive change.”

“Those trying to enact a narrow self-serving agenda are trying to do it at the expense of fair competition and playing by the rules,” said Stout.  “This is simply a very wrong effort to game the high school sports system and Florida’s legislative process. We stopped similar bad ideas from happening in Kentucky that would hurt high school sports and student-athletes – and Florida should stop them, too.”

Retired Tampa Bay Buccaneers All-Pro fullback Mike Alstott, a volunteer coach at FHSAA member St. Petersburg Catholic, praised the organization’s long and distinguished record of producing fair competition and developing student-athlete-citizens who understand the importance of playing by the rules.

“FHSAA is a national model. Public and private high schools throughout the state look to it for guidance and rely on it to make sure everybody plays by the same rules,” said Alstott. “Coaches and parents across Florida and the nation recognize the integrity that is a hallmark of Florida high school sports. FHSAA is the organization that we trust, and it’s the one Florida lawmakers should trust.”

The boards of directors of the Florida Association of Academic Nonpublic Schools, representing 1,300 private schools and their 300,000 students, and the Florida Council of Independent Schools, with 153 schools and 72,000 students, both have voted unanimously to oppose the legislation that essentially lowers existing standards of fairness to allow wrongful actions by coaches, parents and student-athletes that today are against the rules.

Former University of Florida and NFL standout Reidel Anthony played under FHSAA auspices while attending Glades Central High School, where he now is a coach.

“Florida’s high school programs produce outstanding athletes, and many of them go on to play at the college level. But all of them learn other valuable lessons about sportsmanship, competition, teamwork and responsibility that help build better citizens,” Anthony said. “It’s unnecessary and disappointing that some who don’t want to play by the rules wish to set up their own rules, their own organization.”

SB 1704 and HB 1403 would weaken barriers to recruitment of high school athletes by competing schools and would allow potentially ineligible high school athletes to continue playing during an appeal, even though a determination of ineligibility already has already been made. SB 1704 would create a new athletics sanctioning organization, eliminating the continuity that has been a cornerstone of high school athletics throughout the state.

Dearing said the legislation would eliminate consistency of enforcement and undercut FHSAA’s ability to penalize coaches and athletes who cheat by trying to get around bans on illegal recruiting and violations of other regulations.

For almost a century, FHSAA has provided a steady hand in guiding 30 different sports for high school-age boys and girls. Nearly 300,000 student athletes in the state’s public and private schools currently compete in FHSAA programs. In recent years, one of the chronic challenges facing the organization involves recruiting violations, when coaches at one school improperly try to lure away outstanding athletes from other schools.

FHSAA’s guiding principles when investigating alleged recruiting violations are fairness for the affected schools and athletes – and protecting the integrity of high school athletics statewide.

“Cynically creating another organization from scratch, with a lower and skewed set of enforcement standards, will become an invitation to cut corners or break rules for the benefit of a few,” said Dearing. “It’s unfair for the great and vast majority of student athletes, their parents and schools that do follow the rules. It sets the worst kind of example for high school youth.”

Walter Dartland, executive director of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast, said student-athletes, their parents, schools and millions of prep fans should be assured that there will be one statewide set of rules that all are expected to follow.

“This legislation shatters that sense of even-handedness. It’s a threat to the fairness of high school sports competition, and that’s about as unsportsmanlike as it gets,” Dartland said. “Florida lawmakers should blow the whistle on this shallow effort to make it legal to break the rules in high school sports recruiting and competition.”

The Florida High School Athletic Association (www.fhsaa.org) supervises and regulates interscholastic athletic programs for high school students at member public and private schools. The organization also recognizes and honors academic achievement among student-athletes statewide. Headquartered in Gainesville, it is the official governing body for interscholastic athletics in Florida.

For more information on this issue, visit www.ParentsforFairPlay.com.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.