THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 9, 2012
Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
A bill curbing the authority of the Florida High School Athletic Association to sideline transferring students narrowly passed the Senate on Thursday, sending it to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.
The measure (HB 1403) cleared the chamber on a 21-18 vote, with a diverse group of eight Republicans joining the overwhelming majority of Senate Democrats in opposing the bill. Among Democrats, only Sens. Larcenia Bullard of Miami and Gary Siplin of Orlando supported the proposal.
Republicans breaking with their party to vote against the bill included Sens. Charlie Dean of Inverness, Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Anitere Flores of Miami, Alan Hays of Umatilla, Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach, Joe Negron of Stuart, Steve Oelrich of Gainesville and Ronda Storms of Valrico.
The bill would allow transfer students to largely remain eligible in the same year they transfer and would limit the ability of FHSAA to sideline students for recruiting violations.
At the same time, the measure would crack down on schools and coaches involved in the violations.
Supporters said the proposal was intended to punish the adults responsible for violations instead of often unwitting students at the center of the controversies.
"This is about kids," said Senate Education Chairman Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville. "This is all about kids. I don't think that you want to disenfranchise kids because of a bad coach that goes out and particularly recruits a student to come there."
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, echoed the complaints of some schools that FHSAA had become an unaccountable organization.
"They rule with a hammer," Thrasher said. " ... If there was ever a top-down process in Florida high school athletics, this is the organization that represents it."
But opponents argued that the bill would instead open the door to more of the recruiting that the FHSAA has worked hard to combat and could turn athletics into a lawless scramble to recruit the best student athletes, or even some who should be ineligible.
"The driving issue is that every child in Florida should be playing on a team that follows the same rules," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. "I do not want my grandson playing football when he's 17 against another player who is 19 years or older."
Recruiting scandals, often involving private schools that reportedly try to draw the best athletes away from public schools, have periodically broken out in high-school athletics. But most private schools have opposed the measure, something opponents seized on.
They said a few disgruntled schools who had run-ins with the association seemed to be the driving force behind the bill -- undermining the reasons for supporting the measure.
"Now, there's something wrong when we're trying to fix this for privates and publics who work cooperatively, and then you've got the privates saying that they're against it," Lynn said.