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.
“I was very surprised that the leaders of high school athletics in Florida didn’t know they were subject to Title IX,” says attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who sued the high school sports association for gender discrimination. [Photo: Kelly LaDuke]
He proposed FHSAA cut varsity games by 20% and junior varsity games by 40% with the exception of football — a revenue generator at most but not all high schools, and by far the top revenue generator for FHSAA, bringing in nearly $1 million last year. (Dearing exempted the state’s relatively small competitive cheerleading program, too, because it was just getting established. He says the primary reason he exempted football and cheerleading was that they have only 10 games, compared to 24 for most sports.)
The cuts would save Florida’s school districts considerable sports travel and other costs in tough times and could be restored when the economy turned around, Dearing reasoned.
Montford says most superintendents supported Dearing’s plan so they could cut athletics consistently, although some did not. Across Florida, many sports parents and athletic directors were upset about the proposal, saying it would hurt student athletes while letting locally elected school board members and other administrators off the hook for budget decisions.
At the FHSAA board’s late April meeting, members voted 9 to 6 in favor of the cuts. But Dearing and board members (15 men, one woman) had overlooked a crucial detail. By exempting only football, which includes a large number of student athletes, and cheerleading, which has relatively few participants, Dearing and the board appeared to discriminate against girls. Overall, 30% of boys’ competitions were exempted from the cuts, but only 5% of girls’ were.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an attorney and law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville who specializes in the federal Title IX law outlawing gender discrimination in sports, says she called Dearing about the cuts after hearing from more than 50 parents, coaches, administrators and students around the state. A former high school and Olympic swim champion who is among the few women in FHSAA’s Hall of Fame, Hogshead-Makar says she and Dearing tried for weeks to settle the conflict without a costly court battle. But this June, on behalf of a group of parents of female athletes, Hogshead-Makar filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against FHSAA.
In July, FHSAA’s board called an emergency meeting to reverse the cuts. The lawsuit was settled in October, when Dearing agreed that FHSAA would pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees — and never make changes that adversely impacted one gender more than another.
The total bill for FHSAA: $41,000 for the plaintiffs’ fees; about the same amount for hiring its own Title IX lawyer from Holland & Knight; an in-house legal bill for another $14,000; and the special board meeting and other costs. In all, the brouhaha cost the association about $100,000, although Dearing says its insurance carrier will cover all but a $10,000 deductible.
Hogshead-Makar blames the failure to resolve the dispute on “poor leadership.” “I was very surprised that the leaders of high school athletics in Florida didn’t know they were subject to Title IX,” she says.
Dearing makes no apologies for trying to save Florida’s schools money but says, “I do wish we could have avoided the litigation. I’ve always been very mindful of an equal balance between the genders in athletics,” he says.
These lawsuits and others, such as a recent suit filed by the Vero Beach High girls lacrosse team over its eligibility in the FHSAA’s state series, have dented an FHSAA initiative to try to discourage the litigation that has traditionally surrounded the organization’s decisions. In May, in response to the lacrosse filing, Dearing publicly threatened schools that sue the FHSAA: “If you get an injunction and wind up losing, there’s going to be severe consequences ... and we’ll put that in our bylaws.”
Some say Dearing’s style is just what the FHSAA needed: “He and his new CFO have noticed a lot of stuff that hadn’t been noticed before,” says Greg Zornes, athletic director at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg who is president of FHSAA’s board of directors. “The best thing I’ve done since I’ve been on the board is hire him.”
Dearing says the headlines roll off his back. Being a school superintendent, “your name’s in the paper every day,” he says. “And you have disgruntled employees and you have parents who have ESE children who try to sue you, and you have accidents, and it’s every day. This is much calmer.”