One of the worst-kept secrets in high school sports, in major prep meccas like Florida and Texas, is that recruiting and “stealing” of another school’s best athletes goes on constantly.
In big cities like Miami, Tampa, Orlando and others, there are stories every year about one school poaching another’s best football, basketball, baseball, volleyball or just about any other sport’s players.
Sometimes a school gets caught recruiting, feels a tiny modicum of shame, pays a fine and gets put on probation, and then turns around and does it again.
Most of the time, recruiting is a little more subtle, and often goes undetected, with one school gaining a big advantage over another.
Despite recruiting being as common in Florida as complaints about the heat, a new bill making its way through the Florida state legislature aims to make student-athlete transfers easier than it is now.
The bill, SB 684, is sponsored by Senators Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Senator Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and in addition to allowing smaller private schools to join the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) on a per-sport basis, as opposed to the current method of having to pay for membership for all sports, the bill would ease the path for student-athletes looking to transfer.
And that has the athletics directors at Flagler Palm Coast and Matanzas High Schools more than a little concerned.
“This legislation is just going to make transferring so much easier, and it’s going to really affect a lot of big schools getting even more top athletes than they already do,” said Steve DeAugustino, FPC’s athletics director.
SB 684, which is called the “Choice in Sports” bill, passed the Appropriations Committee on Feb. 18 with a unanimous vote
“The big schools have an advantage, and we’re in the top half of the bigger schools so I can’t really say it would hurt us that much,” added Rich Weber, the Matanzas athletics director. “But this could definitely affect the small schools negatively, and it could affect the students (negatively) as well.”
What the bill will do is “allow students to be immediately eligible to join an existing team if the activity roster has not reached maximum size and the student has the requisite skills and abilities to participate,” the legislation reads.
What that means, in real-world terms, is, hypothetically, a student could play on a powerhouse Seabreeze football team in the fall, then decide he wants to be on a top basketball team and transfer to DeLand for the winter sports season.
The current FHSAA policy says that a student-athlete can participate in sports at the school he or she initially enrolls in at the start of the school year, and transfer students can play sports in their new school if they transfer before a certain deadline, but SB 684 would allow students to transfer and be eligible immediately before that sport’s season starts.
“Really, there are two big things that bother me about this bill,” DeAugustino said. “No. 1, the metropolitan areas will thrive on this, because you can drive 10 miles any direction in Miami or Tampa and see 20 schools a kid could play a sport at. “And the second thing is, how beneficial is it for a student to switch schools in the middle of the school year? It’s not.”
The FHSAA has endorsed SB 684, and one of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Stargel, admitted that she’s heard from “many” athletics directors about the bill, and that almost all of them feel as DeAugustino does.
“They think that this bill is going to lead to a crazy amount of recruiting,” Stargel told Flagler Live. “But what needs to be realized is we’re significantly strengthening the punishment for schools and coaches if they are caught.”
Those stricter punishments including raising the fine from a first-time offender from the current $2,500 limit to $5,000, with a second offense including suspension of the coach, without pay, for one year along with a $5,000 fine. A third violation could lead to the loss of a teaching license for the guilty party.
Stargel said her main reasoning for proposing this bill to prevent student-athletes from getting “lost in the shuffle.”
“What’s happening is that you’ve got kids who may not be a big-time athlete, and they’re in a situation where their parents get divorced, and now they’re living cross-town with Dad and going to a new school,” Stargel said. “That student should be able to go play their sport at the new school.”
A local coach in Flagler County, FPC assistant track and field coach Alex Giorgianni, said SB 684 would make it more difficult to compete on a level playing field.
“It’s hard enough to stop recruiting, and this won’t help,” Giorgianni said. “We’re not getting a ton of kids from smaller schools transferring in here, but when we run against big schools, sometimes you hear ‘oh, they just got so and so, they’re going to be even harder to beat.”
The other large issue SB684 addresses, in conjunction with another Senate Bill, SB 1026, is the per-sport membership change. As it stands now, all schools in Florida need to join the FHSAA for every sport, even if they only field teams in a few of them. This change will allow private schools to pay simply for the sports they have teams in. It also would allow private schools to join any other athletic organizations within the state.
Both DeAugustino and Weber say they support that part of the bill.
“I think it probably is a good idea for small schools to be able to join per sport; it could level the playing field a little and allow standout athletes at small schools to stay there,” Weber said. “As one of the larger schools, I don’t think it would affect us that much.”