High school sports slashed by FHSAA
GAINESVILLE - The economy has caught up with the high school student athlete. Understanding that school districts are facing funding problems, the Florida High School Athletic Association board of directors voted 9-6 on Monday in favor of reducing the number of varsity games - except football - in a season by 20 percent and junior varsity games by 40 percent. The vote came after nearly fours hours of input from coaches, parents, athletics directors and superintendents. On one side, there were those who strongly supported reducing the number of games to cut travel costs. The rest argued that cutting games would diminish student athletes' chances of earning scholarships and increase dropout rates. "These are unprecedented times," said the board's president, Greg Zornes. "People are losing their jobs as schools are cutting millions and millions of dollars from their budgets. Our job is to look out for all the schools."Varsity basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball and water polo will go from 25 contests in a season to 20; tennis, lacrosse and wrestling will go from 18 to 15; swimming and diving, weightlifting, track and field and cross country will go from 13 to 11; golf will go from 14 to 12; and flag football from 12 to 10. Football and cheerleading will not be affected by the new policy, which will be in effect for two school years, from 2009 to 2011. The board said it intends to restore the number of games to the current level after the two-year period. "Football already has less than half the games of other sports," FHSAA Chief Executive Roger Dearing said. "They only play once a week while some sports play twice. Football helps operate the other sports." There were some who thought the decision was a mistake. "A freshman would have missed a complete season by the time they are seniors," Florida Athletic Coaches Association volleyball state chairwoman Michele Faulk said. "I think it will affect the younger guys coming up, more than the established runner," Chamberlain High School track and field athlete Mark Parrish said. "Younger athletes need those smaller meets for their chance to shine, and the established guys look more for the larger races. If they don't have those small races, then where are those guys going to get their chance." This may be just the first cut for high school athletics during trying economic times. With the state Legislature still working on the budget, school districts are bracing for cuts that could go deeper than game reductions. During the past two years, the Hillsborough County School District has cut $82.2 million from its budget. Spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the county may have to cut $19 million for the coming year based on the House budget. Although a federal stimulus package has helped, according to the county's Web site, Gov. Charlie Crist has ordered a 15 percent "holdback" in funding for schools that could result in a cut of roughly $196 million for Hillsborough schools. Monday, Hillsborough schools' assistant athletics director Jennifer Burchill said the athletics department will have to make cuts regardless of the FHSAA board's decision. "The budget is being worked on right now," she said. "We have to cut where we can to keep the integrity of the programs and see what's cost-effective for our county." Hillsborough athletics director Lanness Robinson previously said he was in the process of developing a plan to reduce spending, which could result in making athletes pay to participate and playing double-headers with girls and boys teams at the same site. Dearing said some districts already have begun eliminating programs to save money. "Valencia voted to do away with freshman and junior varsity athletics," he said. "When counties do that, it makes scheduling a nightmare. We want to save all sports at all levels. I hope this does." The FHSAA surveyed coaches, athletics directors and superintendents across the state before proposing a reduction. Dearing said some coaches suggested "getting rid of sports that didn't make money" while superintendents were strongly in favor of reducing games to level the playing field.
Reporter Bill Ward contributed to this report. Reporter Nick Williams can be reached at (813) 259-7851