There are few phrases that instill more terror and concern in high school athletics than “pay-for-play.” When it’s used in connection with an established athletic powerhouse, the alarms are even louder.
That’s precisely what unfolded last week, when Tampa Plant High’s baseball program came under fire for longtime head coach’s Dennis Braun’s affiliation with an AAU baseball team that uses the same mascot and colors as Plant’s black and gold Panthers.
An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that Braun had strongly encouraged baseball player’s in Plant’s district to play for the 14-and-under Tampa Panthers team, at a cost of $1,100 per season, paid twice per year. The psuedo-coerced non-school baseball affiliations have continued into players’ high school careers, the Tribune also found:
If you didn’t pay to play for the Tampa Panthers, parents and former Plant assistant coaches say, you’d likely never make the high school cut, creating an atmosphere that former pitching coach Scott Hurst, as well as former and current Plant parents, say is elitist and rigged to benefit the families who pay for offseason teams with which Braun is associated.
In his 11 years at Plant, Braun has been involved in three investigations, one by the school district in 2007 involving intimidation of a player and two by the FHSAA. The most recent one from the state came within the past year when it was discovered that all of Braun’s varsity players participated on the same non-school summer team — except one player, who was later cut his senior year.
According to some parents whose children opted against playing for Braun, the need for a Tampa Panthers background was practically an open secret in the region.
“It was a well-known fact. If you wanted to play for Plant, you had to play on (the Tampa Panthers) team prior to going to Plant. It was expensive. We had three kids in college,” Martee Craparo, whose youngest son played at Robinson High instead of Plant, told the Tribune. “We didn’t have the ability to come up with the excessive amount of money that was required to go, so we basically made the decision that we weren’t going to do it.”
A former Plant assistant, John LaRocca, has come forward to corroborate many of the claims against his former boss. In fact, he said that he was one-half of the scouting team responsible for identifying potential players for Braun’s AAU and American Legion teams. When one of the players they recommended refused to play for one of Braun’s summer-league teams, he systematically cut them from Plant’s varsity team the following season.
There are far more disturbing and damning details in the Tribune report right here. For now, most distressing of all is the following: At time of publication, Braun had been penalized just $250 after he agreed not to coach any of his players during the 2016 summer season. He’s still the head baseball coach at Plant High.