No resolution yet, but still momentum to get girls high school wrestling sanctioned this year

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The biggest item for debate this week at the final Florida High School Athletic Association board meeting of the academic year lasted nearly 30 minutes and didn’t give girls wrestling fans around the state a clear answer on where things stood for their sport entering the summer.

Girls wrestling was poised to have a new state series tournament created and all it needed was a vote by the board to put it in place for the 2021-22 school year.

That didn’t happen, despite the board being heavily in favor of that and approving it at a June 2020 board meeting.

So, what were the reasons and why the decision to table that sanctioning until fall at the earliest? Does the recent vote mean anything for the future of the sport in Florida?

Tuesday’s vote can’t be viewed on just the decision to hit pause alone. Going in, it was considered a slam dunk, recommended for passage by advisory committees and executive director George Tomyn. It bogged down amidst questions of if creating just an individual bracket tournament for girls was enough to satisfy Title IX laws.

An IBT is traditional season-ending wrestling tournament which includes stages of district, region and state tournaments. Presently, girls wrestlers have to compete in the boys state tournament or at a third-party, girls-only season-ending tournament that isn’t affiliated with the FHSAA. According to FHSAA data, 701 girls wrestled in the 2020-21 school year and there’s no doubt that creating a girls state series where females compete against other females will help the sport grow even more.

But when the item was opened up for discussion, the conversation shifted to the equity portion of the team duals tournament. That format is where teams compete against other teams, with the winning team as a whole advancing. It is currently considered gender neutral or open.

But by making girls and boys separate divisions in a state series individual event, that would effectively turn the duals into a boys-only tournament. Girls would no longer be able to compete in the duals tournament, according to the FHSAA’s bylaw 8.6.1. That bylaw says “girls may play on a boys’ team in a sport if the school does not sponsor a girls’ team in that sport.”

And that fell into a legal gray area that the FHSAA’s attorney felt could be viewed as a violation of the federal Title IX law.

“If you’re not giving the same opportunity for competition to the girls as you are the boys you have a Title IX problem,” said Leonard Ireland, legal counsel for the FHSAA.

The FHSAA’s Justin Harrison said the association’s staff would work on addressing that, but it wasn’t in position on Tuesday to be able to change a bylaw. There were concerns about the feasibility of girls-only team duals with the relatively low number of wrestlers in the state (701), too.

“I would be happy to pull it to work with our attorney first and continue to work through this,” Harrison said. “There’s many questions that we don’t have the answer to. I think we’re all in support but we want to make sure it’s done right.”

Everyone on the board, including outgoing member Bobby Johns and board president Lauren Otero, remain in favor of giving girls a state wrestling tournament equal to what the boys have. Johns said that he was worried that with new board members starting terms this fall, girls wrestling could fall by the wayside again. Tomyn promised that wouldn’t be the case. Harrison said that even a delay until the next board meeting in September would still give FHSAA staff ample time to institute a girls state series for the 2021-22 season.

“We’re all about girls participating in sports. I’m the father of two daughters and my daughters had the opportunity to play in high school and also in college,” Tomyn said. “Girls wrestling has been growing in the state of Florida so we’re going to do everything we can possible to get that opportunity for our students.”

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.