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It's Rough and Tumble at FHSAA

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.

High School Football
High school football has gotten so big in Florida that it draws live TV and radio broadcasts, corporate sponsors and even ESPN. Football is the FHSAA’s top revenue generator, with championship games bringing in nearly $1 million, or about a quarter of the association’s total revenue this year.
Dearing describes FHSAA as a “rocking boat” when he came aboard. He says one of his first goals was to scrutinize FHSAA’s sponsor contracts, which provide nearly a fifth of the organization’s annual revenue. He’d begun hearing complaints from corporate sponsors while he served on the FHSAA’s board — RegionsBank executives, for example, indicated they’d been promised FHSAA would move its banking business in exchange for their sponsorship contract, Dearing says.

The sponsorship contracts had been negotiated by Steve Berrey and his Jacksonville-based company, Youth Sports Marketing. Berrey’s firm had held an exclusive contract to provide marketing services to FHSAA since 2005; in June 2008, Stewart had extended it for another four years.

It had been customary for the corporate sponsors to contract directly with Berrey’s company. Dearing says he wanted to examine the sponsor contracts, but Berrey wouldn’t let him. Ultimately, Dearing says he got the contracts by performing an audit. Berrey denies the claim and says the FHSAA already had the contracts in-house. In an April 2009 audit report, FHSAA’s new CFO, Linda Robertson, a former employee of Dearing’s from the Indian River school district, alleged that Youth Sports Marketing owed FHSAA $94,409 and that the company should return an additional $37,500 to RegionsBank for accepting funds for a contract Dearing had not agreed to.

Berrey has responded by suing Dearing and the FHSAA for breach of contract, unfair trade practices, defamation and interfering with business relationships. Dearing, the pending suit charges, unjustly ended Berrey’s successful and profitable relationship with the FHSAA.

Berrey says Robertson deliberately ignored contract terms that show he provided other media services to sponsors outside their contracts with FHSAA. He says that given the nature of their escalating dispute last winter, Dearing should have brought in an independent auditor from outside instead of using Robertson. Berrey calls Robertson’s findings “predetermined.” He alleges that Dearing has defamed him and his company to sponsors and other professionals, ruining his reputation and his business.

Berrey says he can’t figure out why Dearing was so eager to get rid of him since he met or exceeded his fund-raising goals, netting nearly $1 million in sponsorships in the four years of his contract — much more than previous contractors.

Dearing says the answer is that FHSAA wasn’t getting all the sponsorship money it was due. He says he also wanted the organization — not its sponsorship contractor — to control media services, such as TV and radio championship broadcasts. For example, he says Berrey earned about $90,000 a year producing TV shows. Dearing says he now has the Manatee County school system doing the same work for $12,000. Replacing Berrey will be “a tremendous savings,” he says.

Debbie Mayfield
State Rep. Debbie Mayfield, a longtime mortgage broker, was awarded the sponsorship marketing contract for FHSAA and will receive $122,000 a year. [Photo: Jessica Klewicki]
As he replaced Berrey, however, Dearing has added to the controversy. Two companies submitted bids in response to a brief request for proposals posted on FHSAA’s website: A Pensacola radio company that had worked for FHSAA through Berrey; and David Millner Group, a New Jersey political consulting firm that works for Republican candidates. The Millner Group formed a Vero Beach corporation in June, and in July owner David Millner presented his marketing proposal to FHSAA with a new partner: State Rep. Debbie Mayfield, a freshman lawmaker from Vero Beach.

Mayfield says that Millner, who had produced TV campaign ads for her and knew she was looking for new professional opportunities, told her about the request for proposals. She says he suggested they bid on it together, since she and Dearing had known each other for many years, ever since Mayfield’s late husband, former state Rep. Stan Mayfield, was on the Indian River School Board that hired Dearing in 1993.

Ultimately, FHSAA awarded the radio and video streaming portion of its marketing to the Pensacola company; the website portion went to Millner. Mayfield got the sponsorship marketing contract and will receive a $122,000 annual lump sum from FHSAA.

Dearing says that he and other FHSAA staffers decided Mayfield should handle sponsorships separately from other media services to avoid the problems they had with Berrey. Mayfield, a longtime mortgage broker, formed her own company, Athletic Marketing Group on Aug. 12 — about two weeks after she landed the contract.

Mayfield says she asked lawyers with the Florida House of Representatives to review the contract to make sure it wouldn’t conflict with her position as a state lawmaker. She says she will recuse herself from any votes involving the association. “It would be no different than any other lawmaker who has a job,” Mayfield says.

For his part, Dearing says there’s no conflict because FHSAA is a charitable organization rather than a state entity. “The Legislature doesn’t oversee us in any way,” Dearing says.

In fact, Florida Statute 1006.20 designates FHSAA as the governing non-profit for all the state’s public schools and any private school that chooses to join. The statute outlines in great detail how FHSAA must operate, from the rules that establish athlete eligibility and prohibit recruiting to the precise makeup of the organization’s 16-member board of directors.

Dearing sticks to his view of the law, acknowledging that he bases many decisions on his gut instinct built over four decades as a teacher, coach, athletic director, principal and superintendent in Florida’s public schools.

Costly cuts

“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]
The marketing contract decision hasn’t been the only move by Dearing that generated litigation. About four months into his tenure at FHSAA, after a phone conversation with Bill Montford, CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, Dearing came up with a plan to help schools save money on athletics.

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.”