wfsu | By Gina Jordan | March 9, 2023
The governing body for school sports could soon be under Gov. Ron DeSantis’ control. The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) is designated in statutes as the state’s governing nonprofit organization for middle and high school athletics.
The proposal, SB 308, would cut the association’s board almost in half, reducing it from 16 members to 9. Gov. Ron DeSantis would appoint 8 of them. “Ultimately, this provides oversight by the state,” said Sen. Jay Collins (R-Tampa), telling the Senate Education Pre-K – 12 committee his bill will bring accountability to the FHSAA board. The committee approved his bill on a 9 to 3 party line vote.
Former FHSAA board member Mark Marsala says he supports the bill because it would enable public schools to join other athletic associations. He works for the Sunshine State Athletic Conference, a rival conference mostly made up of private schools.
“We allow school choice, academic choice, a choice to home school, FLVS, why not athletic choice?” he asked the committee. “Small private, public, and charter schools need to make the best decisions for their schools to achieve competitive balance. The one size fits all model is no longer viable in today’s world.”
Current FHSAA board member Richard Finlayson explained to lawmakers that he opposes the part of the bill that changes how board members are chosen. Finlayson is principal of Aucilla Christian Academy, about 45 minutes from the Capitol. He was elected to the FHSAA board by private schools in North Florida.
“Being able to have a voice through those who represent us is a really positive thing,” Finlayson said. “Within this bill, it takes away a voice away from those member schools, and that’s a concern to me. I’m elected by the private schools from Jacksonville, Pensacola, and down through Gainesville.”
Collins said a number of issues have arisen in recent years, prompting the need for state oversight. That’s why his bill would also allow schools to make opening remarks of up to two minutes on public-address systems at athletic events.
“So what do you consider to be opening remarks?” asked Sen. Lori Berman (D-Delray Beach), who is Jewish. She cited that part of the bill, which would allow pre-game prayers, as a reason for voting no.
In an ongoing lawsuit from 2015, Christian schools weren’t allowed to say a prayer over a stadium loudspeaker before a state championship football game. The FHSAA won the first round in court, but Tampa’s Cambridge Christian School has appealed.
Collins says the bill isn’t forcing schools to offer prayers; it’s allowing remarks that the competing schools will generally agree on beforehand.
“More than likely this will look like camaraderie, team ship, you know, those things that we all hold to be kind of a key aspect of athletics,” Collins said. “My suspicion is that’s what the vast majority of these two-minute comments will be focused on, sportsmanship and leadership.”
Berman asked Collins if he would consider amending the bill to limit pre-game comments to those topics. Collins declined.
Collins did not offer specifics about why the bill is coming forward now, but Democrats have their suspicions. They point to the recent fight over a rule that would have required girls to report information about their menstrual cycles. The FHSAA dropped the question from its student health form.