FHSAA board meets for final time as state readies for new law

Board will get a makeover as DeSantis appointees will usher in new era

FHSAA executive director Craig Damon sits in his office after a board of directors meeting on Tuesday. (Justin Barney, News4JAX)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida High School Athletic Association’s outgoing board of directors held its final meeting on Tuesday before sweeping changes signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis go into effect next month push them out to begin a new era in high school athletics in the state.

When the three-plus hour meeting adjourned just after 12:15, it put the state on the clock for essentially taking control of Florida’s governing body of high school athletics. On July 1, a new board will take over and pilot the direction of high school sports.

That incoming board has yet to be announced, and little movement on items that were brought up for a vote had traction Tuesday, including a vote on a bringing a shot clock to high school basketball over a three-year period, and adding members to the FHSAA Foundation board, a separate wing of the FHSAA.

What will the new FHSAA look like? There’s little clarity on that, at least not right now. It just won’t look the same as it has for nearly a quarter of a century.

Executive director Craig Damon said that it was a bittersweet day. On one hand, Damon was saying goodbye to numerous FHSAA board members in an official capacity for the final time. On the other, Damon, who received excellent reviews from the board on Tuesday, said that he looked forward to working with the new board and helping to move the FHSAA into the future.

“So that’s part of my job is to bring things forward that I feel is beneficial to the student athletes for the state of Florida. And, ultimately the decision’s up to the board,” Damon said. “But my role is to make sure that I work and try to listen to our constituents, listen to our member schools, and to come up with the best plan for our student athletes moving forward.”

Numerous board members who spoke Tuesday, at least publicly, said they had hope that the incoming board members would do the right thing and keep the focus on creating the best experience for students and not get swayed by partisan politics that has consumed local, state and national headlines. There were some members who would not offer on-the-record comments due to the fear of reprisal from the state.

Chris Patricca, an elected school board member from Lee County, was the lone board member who said openly and publicly that she was disappointed that politics had inundated high school sports like it has. HB 225 was authored by Republican lawmakers and passed the House and Senate on a straight party line vote. Outgoing board president John Gerdes said that politics has unquestionably become part of the landscape in the state, but he remained optimistic about the future.

“I do think that’s true. But I also think that you have to recognize that that’s true and then find solutions for that,” Gerdes said. “And again, that’s where I place my trust and hope in Craig Damon and his staff. I think they’ll do a tremendous job in finding the right balance.”

Gerdes said that he’s naturally an optimistic person so he wants to believe the new board will chose the best path forward for high school athletes. But until a new board is put in place and meets, that direction is a bit of an unknown.

It’s the second time in the past 23 years that the FHSAA has been forced by the state to shake up its power structure. The first came in 1997 under Democratic governor Lawton Chiles when the FHSAA was shaken up under legislation, wiping away an executive committee and seeing its board reduced from 33 to 16.

The new bill changed the numbers of board members (from 16 to 13) and shook up how those members are to be selected.

Eight members of the new board will now be appointed by DeSantis and confirmed by the Senate. Four (two from public schools, two from private schools) will be elected. The Florida Department of Education commissioner or their designee will fill the other spot. Of the nine current members on the FHSAA board who still have time remaining on their terms, it’s not known if any will be back as part of the four elected positions.

Damon’s position as the executive director is also something that is addressed in the bill, saying that the hiring of the executive director must be ratified by the State Board of Education. Damon said Tuesday that he hasn’t been specifically told of any changes to his position.

Why does that change mean so much in terms of high school sports?

In the hyper-charged political climate, the move gives the state, and essentially DeSantis, unprecedented and direct control of high school sports in Florida.

The state’s collision with the FHSAA has been brewing for years, with bills filed nearly every session dating back to 2010-11. DeSantis took issue with how the FHSAA board and its various advisory committees approached and handled the pandemic, inclusions of diversity appointments and wording in the manual, as well as with a very public dispute between Cambridge Christian and the FHSAA.

The association barred that school from a prayer over the PA system before its Class 2A state championship game against University Christian in 2015, a move that has led to years of legal challenges.

DeSantis signed HB 225 at Cambridge Christian last month as a final parting salvo towards the FHSAA. The new law will give schools two minutes of remarks before state series games that can include prayer.

The school took the decision to court and lost, but it has pursued appeals of it. FHSAA counsel Leonard Ireland said the next step in that legal battle is in front of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Jacksonville on June 26. The new law has also removed any mention or stipulation of diversity in adding board members.

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.