TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida's main governing body for high school athletics would have its power reined in under a bill that cleared the state House by a wide margin Wednesday night in a state rich with gifted athletes.
Debate revolved around whether the proposed changes to the Florida High School Athletic Association would set off a system of "free agency" allowing students to change schools at will.
Rep. Larry Metz, the bill's lead sponsor, insisted that it wouldn't. He said it would "free the kids up to do things that they should be able to do in the first place."
Opponents disagreed, with Rep. Kevin Rader warning that the bill would allow students to "shop schools to get to the right coach or to get to the right team they want to play on."
"It doesn't even smell good," the Delray Beach Democrat said of the bill.
The measure passed the House by an 89-26 vote after a lengthy debate, but the game isn't over yet.
Similar legislation is being considered by the state Senate with less than a week and a half left in Florida's 60-day legislative session and a multitude of other issues still pressing for attention.
The FHSAA-related bill (HB 1279) would create a presumption of eligibility for students who comply with transfer deadlines and meet requirements for academic performance and conduct.
But the FHSAA would retain authority to prevent recruiting of high school athletes, Metz said.
The stakes regarding student eligibility are high in a state known as a high school football hotbed that has an abundance of talented athletes in other sports as well.
Metz, R-Yalaha, has said his measure is meant to set some "checks and balances" in eligibility investigations and rulings by the FHSAA.
The bill would put time limits on eligibility investigations and would allow judges to hear students' appeals of eligibility rulings by the athletic governing body.
An investigation would have to be completed within 90 days of its onset. The intent is to make sure that investigations don't drag on so long that a student's eligibility expires.
Also, investigators would have to notify parents that they can accompany their children to any interviews as part of the investigation. The bill also would require investigators to possess the same license as private investigators.
The bill's critics said it amounted to an unjustified legislative overreach.
Of the approximately 263,000 Florida students who participated in high school athletics last year, only a few dozen were ruled ineligible, they said. And many of those students were sidelined due to academic reasons.
"Sports is about rules," said House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale. "We all know the rules, and we all have to abide by the same rules."
Opponents said the bill was being pushed by disgruntled parents wanting to make it easier for their children to transfer to any school they want.
Supporters countered that the bill is needed to rein in a mindset at FHSAA that they said has resulted in overzealous investigations.
Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said the organization has displayed a "gotcha" mentality with "a presumption of guilt with kids."
Supporters said bill is aimed at making sure that students can transfer if their schools don't offer the sports they want to play.
Diaz said that sports represent the most effective dropout prevention effort in schools.
"So we're going to allow a group of people sitting on their 'high and mighty throne' to dictate who can or cannot participate in an activity just because it's not available at their school?" he said.
Rep. Larry Lee Jr., D-Port St. Lucie, traced his success as an adult to his football days in high school.
"There was an incident that happened during my senior year that could have ruled me ineligible," he said. "And had I been ruled ineligible, I never would have gone to college."