The Age of Austerity is upon us, and legislators at all levels want to make cuts. The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) is currently in the crosshairs of the Florida Legislature, and it’s hard to see how it will escape.
House Bill 1279 would cut FHSAA revenue and executive director Roger Dearing's $151,000 salary. Dearing would be terminated at the end of June. All 16 board members would be replaced at the end of September. The proposal passed a legislative subcommittee unanimously, and it’s easy to see why.
From the outside, especially considering what used to be traditional conceptions of amateur sports as an adjunct to the educational process, it’s hard to understand why the FHSAA executive director would have a higher base salary than the Florida governor – even before factoring in Dearing’s car and cellphone allowances.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported the proposal would “chop in half the FHSAA share of revenue from the preseason classics and postseason playoffs it sanctions. That is $2.5 million in 2012-’13, almost half of a $5.2 million budget.” Dearing maintains the FHSAA has a right to this money.
“The misconception is that we’re taking tax revenue," Dearing said. “That’s not the case. The money we get is from gate receipts of events we put on. We receive nothing from regular-season games. That stays with our schools.”
The bill would also change student-athlete eligibility, requiring the FHSAA to presume a student is eligible unless proved otherwise, opening the door to students no longer being barred from receiving benefits from schools, changing the language to the more subjective “significant benefits” — a phrase that will undoubtedly be open for discussion if HB 1279 passes.
The FHSAA has been on the ropes in recent years, with legislative efforts designed to make it easier for transfer students to be eligible to play (for private schools, mostly, outside FHSAA's purview).
The bill also opens the door for an annual financial and compliance audit of “each nonprofit association or corporation that operates for the purpose of supervising and controlling interscholastic activities of public high schools and whose membership is composed of duly certified representatives of public high schools,” a category which would seem to include the FHSAA. If the FHSAA fails to comply, the bill holds that a nonprofit organization is to be designated to govern athletics with the approval of the State Board of Education. The bill explicitly defines the FHSAA as “not a state agency,” which is news to no one but the FHSAA.
“Fairness and playing by the rules would be dealt a damaging blow if this proposed bill becomes a dangerous law,” said an FHSAA statement. “This policy change would jeopardize the integrity of high school athletic competition by creating the equivalent of ‘free agency’ for student-athletes. It would invite the tragic element of cutthroat recruiting to the wholesome world of prep sports. Legislators need to see this for what it is: legitimizing cheating and rewarding rule breakers.”
Some would argue that “cutthroat recruiting” has always been part of that “wholesome world.”
“We support the principle that every student-athlete be given a chance to play — but it should be in a proven system that promotes honor, fair play, character and truthfulness. This legislation will only derail our 93-year track record of promoting fair play and protecting young athletes from unscrupulous, win-at-all-costs recruiters. The FHSAA wants to work with lawmakers to strengthen high school athletics, not undermine them. We continue to stand for fairness, sportsmanship and playing by the rules. This legislation takes an unwarranted cheap shot at fair play — it is a frontal assault on the positive tradition of school spirit that exists in Florida’s high schools.”
So much verbiage here doesn’t address the big picture. It's not whether high school athletics should be characterized by fair play, fairness, playing by the rules, character or truthfulness, but whether the FHSAA can even safeguard those elements — or if it actually exists as yet another governing body that enriches the people who lead it at the expense of, among other parties, the athletes it claims to serve.
There's a radical disconnect between the FHSAA’s statements on this bill and what the bill actually intends to do. The FHSAA has been given opportunities to clean up its act over the years without this kind of bill. It has assumed absolute power over high school sports, but to whose benefit? And we know what Lord Acton said about absolute power.
It corrupts. Absolutely.