October 24, 2014

Sports Business

It's Rough and Tumble at FHSAA

The new head of the powerful organization that regulates high school sports stepped into the job amid controversy and hasn't been afraid of it since.

Cynthia Barnett | 12/1/2009

Roger Dearing
Roger Dearing has moved to limit the litigation that’s traditionally plagued the FHSAA, but two of his initiatives have generated lawsuits on their own. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
In spring 2008, the board of the Florida High School Athletic Association was poised to choose among three finalists to replace John Stewart, who was retiring after five years as executive director of the powerful organization that regulates sports in public and private high schools throughout the state.

On the eve of a scheduled Sunday vote, the organization’s COO at the time, Jack Watford, says he got a tip alleging that the preferred candidate, an FHSAA executive, was in an unethical relationship with an official at a Florida high school who served on her region’s FHSAA appeals committee.

It was a serious allegation in the high-stakes world of Florida high school sports. The FHSAA, among other tasks, rules on athletes’ eligibility to play. Its decisions can change students’ lives and teams’ fortunes. The potential conflict of interest was clear: The man at the FHSAA helped make decisions on athletes’ eligibility that the woman at the high school voted to either uphold or reject.

The Florida High School Athletic Association

A non-profit corporation designated by state statute to regulate high school athletics in Florida, FHSAA oversees 243,000 students playing 30 sports in 788 member schools. Florida statutes require public schools and those private schools that wish to compete with them to belong. Costs to schools work out to about 50 cents per student athlete per year.

» Established: 1920

» Headquarters: Gainesville

» Executive Director: Roger Dearing, 60, a native of Orlando, took over the organization in January. The former teacher, coach and athletic director was the superintendent of Indian River schools from 1994 to 2003 and Manatee County schools from 2003 to January 2009.

» Money: The organization projects $4.3 million in revenue this year: 51% from high school athletic events; 17% from corporate sponsorships and royalties; 13% from school dues and fees; 8% from officials’ training; and 8% from fines.

Mindful that the executive was Stewart’s choice, Watford passed the tip to two board members he viewed as influential, Jackson County School Superintendent Danny Sims and Manatee County School Superintendent Roger Dearing. When it met, the board didn’t mention the allegation but voted to start a new search for an executive director. The same day, with Stewart still in the dark, Sims ordered Watford and then-CFO Roberta Elkins to investigate the allegations and report to Stewart. Watford says Dearing told him not to tell Stewart in advance.

The investigation revealed that the FHSAA executive had used 234 hours of FHSAA cell phone time — more than 28% of all the minutes allocated for 11 administrators in the organization’s cell phone contract — and more than 2,800 text messages communicating with the school official. Some 72 pages’ worth of e-mails showed the two bantering suggestively about meeting: “I have a big eligibility question,” the school official wrote in a February 2008 e-mail. “Are you eligible to do me tomorrow night?”

The FHSAA executive wrote back: “Your request to be “done” is approved. Very much approved. Way approved. ALWAYS APPROVED.”

Ultimately, Stewart reprimanded the executive and fined him for improper use of the company cell phone. The two FHSAA executives who investigated the affair, however, ended up leaving their jobs. Stewart told Watford that his handling of the incident was unacceptable and later told Watford his position was being eliminated due to budget cuts.

Elkins also left, submitting a letter of resignation in which she detailed organizational failures she said she’d raised throughout her 10-year tenure. She said she could no longer work for an employer that “does not deem quality and integrity as top priorities.”

Meanwhile, as the scandal played out, Dearing, who had served as the Manatee schools superintendent since 2003 and the Indian River County superintendent for nine years before that, made himself a candidate for the FHSAA’s top job. And in June 2008, the board named him to replace Stewart.

The $130,000-a-year position is somewhat of a plum, combining the appeal of athletics with perks and retirement benefits that have grown lucrative over the years. Dearing is the third former superintendent to occupy the top spot at FHSAA. In January, he moved his collection of Gator paraphernalia from Bradenton to his corner office in the association’s 15,000-sq.-ft. headquarters in west Gainesville.

Tags: Politics & Law, Education, Government/Politics & Law

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