ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - The major governing body of high school athletics in Florida is ramping up its efforts to fight a pair of bills in the House and Senate that it believes will drastically alter its ability to police students who want to change schools strictly for athletic purposes.
Opponents, led by the Florida High School Athletic Association, believe the measures would create a condition of athletic "free agency" by allowing students to change schools at will as long as they met the new school's academic and athletic requirements. Currently, any transfer driven solely for athletic reasons is prohibited by FHSAA legislations.
"This legislation seems to be driven by a few lawmakers who don't like the fact that we enforce and try to validate rules against true offenders," FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing said. "It represents simply bowing down to the guilty. Here in the FHSAA and our member schools, we look at this as trying to legislate cheating."
The bills (HB 1279 and SB 1164) are both still currently undergoing revisions at the committee level. But the Senate version of the bill is on the Education Committee's agenda this week, and the House version has received the support of Speaker Will Weatherford. Their sponsors, Senator Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, insist the bills only establish missing due process for student-athletes.
In a joint press release with Access for Student Athletes Coalition, a group launched by Floridians for Government Accountability, Stargel said the legislation would not inhibit the FHSAA from its primary functions.
"However, it would help combat their predisposition to consider students as guilty until proven innocent, and would establish true due process and rights for student athletes, which the current system clearly lacks," Stargel said.
The FHSAA's efforts got a big boost on Thursday when the National Federation of State High School Associations passed a unanimous resolution in support of its opposition of the bills.
"There are frequently in some states bills filed in the legislature, but not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak," NFHS executive director Bob Gardner said. "But certainly not anything of this magnitude."
Of the 260,000 student-athletes that FHSAA oversaw last year, Dearing said less than 2,000 had their eligibility questioned. Of those, only 72 were determined to have violated rules.
"So it's certainly not a case of guilty until proven innocent," Dearing said.
What's making the case an even more intriguing political fight is what else it could potentially do.
If signed into law, the bills would also alter FHSAA's current makeup itself, by changing the current composition of its board to include the addition of four state appointees, by setting new rules for how FHSAA levies fines and collects fees and eliminate it as the governing body by 2017.
Messages left at the offices of Stargel and Metz seeking further comment were not immediately returned.
But in the Access for Student Athlete's statement, Stargel went on to say that she was standing up for "unfair practices and sanctioned bullying" on the part of the FHSAA.
A non-profit group, FHSAA is currently allowed to administer fines and penalties for its 800 member schools independently. A key provision in the new bills, however, would require much more oversight.
It would do this by imposing strict limits of FHSAA investigations of rule violations to 90 days and also change the appeals' process by giving it to the state's Division of Administrative Hearings.
Dearing said that step would all but prevent timely punishing of recruiting rules' violators with hearing with DOAH sometimes taking as long as three years to get scheduled.
"So if we have a child that we've declared to be ineligible because they don't meet the rules, this law now says this kid continues to play until they can be heard before the Division of Administrative Hearings. That kid could be a sophomore in college by then," he said.
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)