Controversial new law changes game for transfer athletes and the FHSAA

Gov. Rick Scott signed the controversial measure Friday

By Buddy Collings, Orlando Sentinel

3:10 PM EDT, April 28, 2012

A new law that will go into effect July 1 changes the game for high-school athletes, coaches and administrators. Whether for better or worse is up for debate.

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law on Friday a statute that alters a number of Florida High School Athletic Association rules regarding transfers, recruiting and eligibility investigations.

The author of the bill, State Rep. Kelli Stargel (R-Lakeland), pushed for changes to allow student-athletes to retain athletic eligibility when they switch schools.

What the signing of House Bill 1403 into law means to players, coaches, schools and the FHSAA:

Burden of proof

The FHSAA clamped down on transfers who have ties to a coach or non-school team (club, etc.) affiliated with their new school. Its recruiting policy defined that as "prima facie" evidence of transfers for athletic reasons and stipulated ineligibility for a year.

Also ineligible were athletes who transferred after the first 20 days of a school year unless they met five specific exceptions, one being a "full and complete" move with parents or guardians.

Stargel says the FHSAA was assuming guilt, sidelining students for "technical violations," and placing the burden of proof on the accused. Athletes now can be ruled ineligible only if "clear and convincing evidence" shows they or their parents falsified documents or accepted impermissible benefits.

Focus on coaches

Stargel saved punishment for schools, coaches and "adult representatives" of a program. Coaches found guilty of recruiting or knowingly allowing ineligible athletes to participate can be suspended from FHSAA involvement (games and practices) and billed if a school is fined.

"If a coach recruits a student for his team, that coach is the person who receives a benefit," Stargel said. "The student has simply accepted an opportunity that was presented to them. The child has done nothing wrong.

"If the FHSAA judges the coach has violated policies, the coach is the person who should be punished."

Critics of the law say Stargel wrongly assumes that teens old enough to drive don't know wrong from right when it comes to illegal recruitment.

Open season?

Some say Florida already had free agents. Miami Central, state football champ in 2010 and runner-up last year, had six seniors sign with major colleges in February. Five previously played for another high school.

Now the FHSAA has been stripped of much of its power to investigate and regulate transfers. Florida's 67 school districts inherit authority as any transfer approved by a county or accepted by a private school retains athletic eligibility unless wrongdoing is proven.

"This pendulum has swung 180 degrees," Roger Dearing, the FHSAA executive director, said before the law was signed. "It's going to open up a whole lot of avenues for potential recruiting and unintended consequences."

Protect bystanders

The law says athletes can't be punished for violations perpetrated by a teammate, coach or administrator — a change that is getting applause from fans who have seen innocent athletes lose playoff opportunities because a benchwarmer lied about his address.

There is language in the law that says contests may be forfeited if a coach or administrator "should have known" about violations. That's a gray area sure to create controversy. The FHSAA avoided judgment calls by stating simply that an ineligible player is an ineligible player and teams must forfeit all games in which they participated.

Copyright © 2012, Orlando Sentinel

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