State law needs to be changed to make it easier for high schools to crack down on the recruiting of student-athletes, the executive director for the Florida High School Athletic Association told a Senate committee Wednesday.
Roger Dearing asked lawmakers to pursue legislation in their 2016 session that would instill harsher penalties for coaches and teachers who recruit athletes and that would make it more reasonable for schools to prove wrongdoing and improper behavior.
Students are supposed to change schools for academic reasons or because they move into a different district; coaches and teachers are not allowed to entice a student to change schools to play for a sport. But athletic recruiting is still a somewhat-common, yet hard-to-prove practice, particularly in highly competitive areas such as South Florida.
Dearing told the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee that he continues to hear stories from parents about coaches or school representatives who have approached student-athletes to convince them to join their programs -- even going so far as using burner phones to contact the teenagers in secret.
"We really need some statutory help with that. Recruiting is our hugest problem," Dearing told senators. The FHSAA is a private, non-profit organization that, under Florida law, serves as the official governing body for interscholastic athletics. It has 800 member schools statewide.
Why is recruiting prohibited? "You can’t have adults manipulating children for their own gain," Dearing told reporters after the hearing.
Dearing told the committee the FHSAA has received 12-15 complaints of alleged recruiting in the past four years. None were investigated last year, but two schools have investigations underway now: one in the Florida Panhandle and another in South Florida. (Dearing declined to say which South Florida school, but did confirm it's not in Miami-Dade.)
State law was changed a few years ago to set a higher bar in order to prove recruiting: “clear and convincing evidence,” which Dearing said is the “same preponderance of evidence in a murder case.”
"It’s next to impossible to prove recruiting," he said. "The level of proof is just a little bit higher than we can actually reach in most cases."
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, asked Dearing to suggest wording for legislation that could replace the existing law.
The FHSAA's oversight of high school athletics has been the subject of legislative discussions for several years. Last year, for instance, a bill that, some said, threatened the very existence of FHSAA cleared the House by an 86-29 vote. It died in the Senate.
Lawmakers are expecting "several bills" to be filed for the 2016 legislative session that could affect high school athletics and the FHSAA's governance authority.
The Senate committee's workshop on Wednesday was being held to prepare members for those future discussions, said Vice-Chairwoman Nancy Detert, R-Venice.
Photo credit: Miami Central running back James Cook gets tackled by Booker T. Washington defensive back Marquis Decius during first half of a high school football game Saturday night Sept. 26, 2015. Gaston De Cardenas / Miami Herald