The Ponte Vedra High School (PVHS) boys lacrosse program must forfeit an undetermined number of games from the 2016-17 season and pay a fine of at least $250 after Florida’s governing body for high school athletics concluded a player received an “impermissible benefit.”
According to a letter sent to PVHS Principal Dr. Fred Oberkehr on Thursday, May 17 from the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA), a PVHS student-athlete on the lacrosse team “was permitted to stay with a representative of the school’s athletic interests” during the 2016-17 season. The Sharks finished that season 19-2 and lost to Lake Mary in the second round play-in game of the 2017 State Championship.
Signed by Craig Damon, associate executive director of eligibility and compliance services for the FHSAA, the letter cites a report submitted by PVHS that explains the player stayed with a family friend in Ponte Vedra Beach Tuesday through Thursday at night while his grandmother was at work. According to the letter, he then commuted from his guardian’s residence in St. Augustine Friday through Monday. Such activity, according to the FHSAA, is a violation of the organization’s Policy 126.96.36.199, which states student-athletes cannot live on a full- or part-time basis with any school employee, athletic department staff member or representative of the school district’s interests. The letter states the school, coaches and administration were not aware of this arrangement while it occurred.
After conversations with the district, lacrosse program and FHSAA, the Recorder concluded the student-athlete stayed with a family whose son was also on the team. According to the FHSAA, a parent of a teammate is considered a representative of the school’s athletic interests.
“We define representatives of the school’s athletic interest as any student-athlete of the school, the parents of student-athletes of the school, staff members, booster members or people who make donations to the school,” Damon told the Recorder. “For this particular incident, the parents did have a kid that was a student-athlete at the school, so that made the parents part of the school’s athletic interest.”
According to the district and the FHSAA, the family also happens to include former coaches of the Ponte Vedra girls lacrosse program who resigned their positions in 2015. The FHSAA said, however, that detail is not the reason for the sanctions.
The consequences of the FHSAA violation include the forfeiture of all contests the student-athlete participated in during the 2016-17 season, a fine of at least $250 and an official reprimand from the FHSAA on the school’s membership record. The exact number of forfeited games is to be determined.
The school must communicate its infraction with each of the impacted schools during the 2016-17 season and provide a copy of that correspondence to the FHSAA. As for the fine, $250 is immediately due to the FHSAA, and an additional $2,250 is held in abeyance until June 30, 2019, provided no other violations occur.
According to Paul Abbatinozzi, senior director for school services for the St. Johns County School District, the student-athlete was initially on the junior varsity team and moved up to varsity. He said the student-athlete is enrolled at Ponte Vedra through the controlled open enrollment process, part of an academy and fully entitled to participate in athletics.
“We don’t agree with the FHSAA’s interpretation of this piece,” Abbatinozzi said on behalf of the district and PVHS. “We certainly respect their decision, as well as their authority as the governing body for interscholastic athletics. Our plan is to move forward with this. We will accept the sanctions, and we’re just going to continue to look to improve our athletic programs across the district.”
Andy Dykstra, the parent liaison for the boys lacrosse boosters, said the student-athlete stayed at his best friend’s house to save the hassle of commuting back and forth. He noted this happened on occasion and not as consistently as reported. Dykstra said the family was simply trying to help a friend out, and as a result, would like more clarity regarding the FHSAA’s ruling.
“As far as we understand it … the impermissible benefit was that one of the players stayed at his friend’s house,” Dykstra said. “I don’t think it’s a reach to say that happens all the time in any sport in high school.”
The FHSAA sanctions follow an investigation that started in January 2018 after the organization received multiple anonymous allegations concerning the lacrosse program. According to the FHSAA letter, the allegations contained potential violations involving non-school teams, unsportsmanlike conduct and possible recruiting by members of the school’s lacrosse staff. The letter adds the allegations also referenced unethical behavior by an athletic department staff member.
The FHSAA letter states the allegations were forwarded on Jan. 29 to Oberkehr, who was instructed to review them, as well as athletic director David Scott and district representatives. After reviewing the alleged violations, Scott reportedly submitted a report of findings from the investigation to the FHSAA, which in turn said the report included concerns outside of its authority and more aligned with the day-to-day operations of the district. After comparing information provided in the original allegations with the report filed by PVHS, however, the violation was identified from the 2016-17 season.
Both Abbatinozzi and Dykstra said the allegations were investigated and none of them were substantiated, except this one. As a result, Dykstra said it feels like the FHSAA is trying to make a statement, which he said is unfair.
“I don’t purely on principle feel that it’s right to just let this go as a slap on the wrist because I don’t think it’s right to the people involved,” Dykstra said. “They didn’t do anything knowingly unfair, knowingly to benefit this boy. They literally were trying to help a friend out.”