In a landmark move, the House of Representatives passed HB 7137, a bill making numerous changes to the state of high school athletics, by a vote of 86-29 on Wednesday in Tallahassee.
The bill, which could move on to the Senate as early as Friday, would overhaul the FHSAA as the state’s high school governing body, redefine regulations toward eligibility, allow schools the flexibility to float between associations in different sports and could potentially create a system of free agency among schools without sports programs, among other provisions.
“Change is always is scary, but the state Legislature running it, are they going to run it any more efficiently than any other nonprofit would?” Riverdale head football coach Damon Jones asked. “It will be interesting to tell.”
Upon the passing of the bill, FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing released a statement denouncing the acceptance of the bill.
“For over 95 years, the FHSAA has enabled student-athletes to participate on an equitable basis and receive vital educational benefits through sports,” Dearing said. “This bill ‘trumps’ academics with athletics and tosses good sense and fair play to the side. We should be focusing on how athletics supplement education, not determine it.
“As the umbrella organization for interscholastic sports, the FHSAA has established a track record of developing rules of sportsmanship and fair play for all those who enter the sports arena. High School free agency is something we should all oppose.”
But the Sunshine State Athletic Conference, an independent conference which is a member of the FHSAA, did not waver in support of the bill. Stuart Weiss, the president of the SSAC, was pleased with the outcome.
“This is a great step forward in giving coaches, parents and schools a voice in their sports and programs, by allowing them to choose where their programs are best suited,” Weiss’ news release said. “This allows for the greatest level of success for their student athletes.
“The Sunshine State Athletic Conference strives to unite like-minded organizations to offer a level playing field … allowing all schools and athletes to succeed.”
The FHSAA contends the new bill will enhance recruiting and create an unfair playing field for schools across Florida, including the opportunity for impermissible benefits and financial arrangements to be easily conducted.
Representative Kevin Rader, of Delray Beach, opposed the bill in the house, saying it would lead to a “free-agent market” where students could choose their athletic course without much interference.
Sponsor Manny Diaz, of Hialeah, closed by saying the bill is not a “witch-hunt” and disputed that it created a world of “free agency” for student-athletes.
He said the bill would hold adults accountable for the recruitment of athletes and said “it’s time to update archaic rules.”
All four of Lee County’s Republican representatives — Matt Caldwell, Dane Eagle, Heather Fitzenhagen, Ray Rodrigues — voted in favor of the bill.