The Palm Beach Post | by Alex Peterman | June 8, 2021
Amid backlash over a potential rule change with massive implications on Palm Beach County schools, the Florida High School Athletic Association on Tuesday tabled a proposal that would prevent middle-schoolers from competing on high school varsity athletic teams.
The rule change proposed by Merritt Island athletic director Jeff McLean of Brevard County sought to prevent student-athletes in grades six through eight from participating on varsity teams, starting with the 2023-24 school year. However, the Board of Directors elected not to vote on the item during Tuesday’s meeting in Gainesville. The proposal will now likely go through additional vetting by FHSAA committees.
“I’ve taken a number of calls and emails from athletic directors of mostly private schools,” Benjamin School athletic director Ryan Smith said Monday. “I obviously do not agree with the proposal. Everyone I’ve spoken with does not agree with the proposal.”
Smith is on the FHSAA advisory board starting July 1, and he says the question of middle-schoolers participating in varsity-level sports has been a point of discussion in recent years. While public schools don’t usually rely on middle-school athletes, that’s not the case for private schools, like Benjamin, which usually have smaller high school enrollments.
“It’s not like we have access to hundreds of kids, theoretically, and I think that’s where a misconception — maybe a misunderstanding — that we really have access to all these additional student-athletes that don’t count toward our enrollment figures, which is not the case,” Smith continued.
For Smith, the proposal is in part based off of several misunderstandings, including a section which identifies injury-reduction as a positive result of banning middle-schoolers from varsity programs.
For Benjamin and many others, that’s not necessarily a concern. Smith doesn’t remember any middle-schoolers playing on varsity football teams in his tenure as athletic director; instead, it’s non-contact sports like tennis, swimming, and golf where the majority in which those seventh- and eighth-graders are participating.
In the proposal, McLean identifies junior varsity teams as programs where middle-schoolers can hone their skills, but Smith says there’s a numbers problem with that.
“Schools that are very small, one hundred to two hundred students in their high school, they rely heavily upon [middle-schoolers] to have enough for a tennis team, for swimming teams, just to maintain the program,” he said. “Small schools don’t have junior varsity in a lot of sports because we don’t have the numbers.”
Another athletic director at a local private school, Chris Hobbs of King’s Academy, echoed those sentiments.
“In a talent-rich state like Florida, there are lots and lots of student-athletes that are in a private or charter school setting that are eighth-grade but are varsity athletes,” Hobbs said. “So, I think to take away an opportunity from them to participate at a level that they are capable of is a little bit problematic.”
Hobbs also explained that in a time of so much disruption and change following a COVID-altered school year, less is more.
“I think one of the other things is that when we’re coming through such an unprecedented year like this, one of the smart things you can do from an organizational or a policy standpoint is to just stay steady,” he said.
While Benjamin doesn’t usually rely on middle-schoolers for contact sports such as football, that’s not the case at Village Academy, a public choice school in Delray Beach.
Village Academy football coach Gad Jacobs wrote in a message to The Palm Beach Post that “For [schools] such as Village Academy, this would all but surely shut our program down.”
The school has less than 300 students in grades six through 12 and around 100 high schoolers, according to Jacobs.
“Having access to some of the middle schoolers allows us to groom some of the younger kids and create relationships,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs also said some eighth-graders are too old to play youth football and without a middle or high school team to play for, they wouldn’t have a chance to play the sport until they reach ninth grade.
Other items of note from Tuesday’s Board of Directors meeting:
- The FHSAA approved a state postseason series for beach volleyball, which will be held in the spring. Last year, the Board of Directors voted to sanction beach volleyball and girls wrestling, starting in the 2021-22 school year.
- A vote on the girls wrestling state series was tabled until September.
Featured image: American Heritage midfielder Casey Roberts (25) carries the ball down the field under pressure from Benjamin’s Lily Valentini (33) during the Class 1A girls lacrosse regional semifinal between American Heritage and Benjamin at American Heritage School in Delray Beach, Fla., on Thursday, April 22, 2021. Final score, American Heritage, 22, Benjamin, 9. Andres Leiva, Special to the Palm Beach Post