After looking closely at how student-athletes move from one school to another, the Florida High School Athletic Association has proposed a significant policy broadening student-athlete eligibility. This new policy will be better for student-athletes, better for parents and most important of all better for the cause of sportsmanship and fair play.
Over the last two years, both the Legislature and FHSAA have wrestled with this complex topic. On the one hand, we need to ensure that students have the option of attending the school that best fits their academic needs while also allowing them to pursue their athletic dreams. On the other hand, there is a compelling interest in placing limits on student movement so flagrant recruiting doesnt turn a select few schools into athletic powerhouses and shut out everyone else. After all, the primary focus of our childrens high school education should be academics.
For years, our so-called follow-the-coach rule limited a students ability to participate in athletics after changing his or her school enrollment. If an athlete played for a rival schools coach while participating on a club team, for example, he had to sit out a year following a change in enrollment to that rival school. The intent was to prevent coaches from using nonschool activities to improperly influence star players school choice decisions.
However, that benched the student-athlete entirely not just from playing for that coach, but also from playing on any other varsity team at his new school. After receiving valuable input from coaches, athletic directors and administrators, we developed a new approach.
Under our proposed previous contact bylaw, student-athletes making a change in enrollment would still have to sit out a year, but only at the varsity level and only in the sport involving the coach in question. That way, the student-athlete wouldnt be unduly penalized, but the school could not benefit immediately from bringing in outside talent.
Our proposal, which will be voted on by the FHSAA Representative Assembly next month, also has a provision to help student-athletes who have no choice but to change schools. If the last grade student-athletes attended at their previous school was the final grade offered there, they could enroll at whichever high school they want even if it means they would be playing for a coach they met through a nonschool activity. This rule change will substantially reduce the number of students forced to go through an appeals process.
In considering these changes, we wanted to make sure the new approach was something that would work at the school level. That is why, during a series of meetings over the summer, we surveyed high school athletic directors, administrators and coaches on their beliefs and desires regarding student-athletes ability to participate in nonschool athletic activities, while maintaining the integrity of interscholastic competition.
Almost three-quarters agreed that enrollment change or club participation rules should be changed, and more than half said the follow-the-coach rule should be modified in some manner. Interestingly, about three out of four said students and parents should not have the right to choose where they attend school based solely on athletic participation reinforcing the overwhelming sense, among those who work with our young children on a daily basis, that high school education must maintain its focus on the academic growth and development of students.
High school athletics has become a high-profile, big-ticket enterprise, with schools competing for opportunities to play in front of college recruiters and national cable audiences. In the end, we hope this new approach will eliminate uncertainty regarding students who change enrollment and the undue influence some adults attempt to exert on outstanding athletes, while at the same time introducing a greater degree of fair play.
After all, thats what high school athletics is supposed to be all about.
Roger Dearing, Ph.D., is executive director of the Florida High School Athletic Association, based in Gainesville. He is a former coach, athletic director and Manatee County school superintendent.