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Commentary

In between a rock and hard rules

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003

Rules are rules.

The Florida High School Activities Association has undergone many changes in recent years, but what hasn't wavered is its general unwillingness to make exceptions to those who go against its bylaws.

Citrus tennis standout Bret Feldman found that out Thursday, when the association rejected his appeal to regain eligibility.

Here's the lowdown:

In the fall, Feldman, a junior who spent his freshman and sophomore years at Citrus, enrolled at Saddlebrook Prep in Wesley Chapel. He transferred back to Citrus in January, citing academics.

Feldman got a transfer waiver from Saddlebrook. I talked to Saddlebrook athletic director Lester Bouchard on the phone. He said Feldman had been a model student and even wished him the best.

Citrus, thinking everything was okay, let Feldman play. But after three matches, word came from the FHSAA the transfer would cost Feldman his eligibility. He had to forfeit both wins, too.

The transfer of schools, turns out, wasn't the biggest issue. The problem was that the association forbids a kid from changing the person with whom they live when he or she changes schools. Feldman had boarded at Saddlebrook and moved back home when he returned to Citrus.

It's a little-known rule, one that Feldman admitted Wednesday he knew nothing about. It's there for a reason: The association doesn't want kids home-hopping for the sake of athletics.

Citrus athletic director Vicki Overman was so confident the school would have no problem getting the decision reversed, at first she said she wouldn't attend the appeal.

Because Feldman, a 4.2 GPA student, said he transferred because of academics and not athletics, she figured the appeals committee would restore his eligibility.

The first inkling that might not happen came that day when FHSAA associate commissioner Dan Boyd said if it were his son, he'd be at the appeal. In other words: This thing ain't so cut and dry.

Overman and Feldman's mother, Leah Stringer, were at Thursday's appeal in Ocala. Feldman, told things looked good, stayed in school. His coach, Doug Patton, when reached by phone late Thursday morning, had yet to hear the news. 'It's killing me," he said.

Overman and Stringer took 30 minutes to present Feldman's case.

The appeals committee didn't bite.

Rules are rules.

Overman said Feldman received the news "like a young man." He can take his case to the FHSAA board (there's no word whether that decision has been made), but it doesn't meet until late March.

Even if he wins at that point Feldman would miss about 65 percent of the season.

Personally, I side with Feldman.

Overman said Saddlebrook's academic program wasn't enough to satisfy Feldman. When a kid has a 2.0, that excuse doesn't fly, but you tend to believe Feldman. He also admitted to being a little homesick.

Had he transferred to Saddlebrook in January from Citrus, okay, then you say something stinks.

But this appeared to be a move motivated by academics, not tennis. That should count for something.

It's one thing for a kid's coach or parent to talk about how great he is, but let's not forget the AD from the school Feldman left said the same thing. Crystal River coach Vicki Browning said she'd defend Feldman at his appeal. That speaks volumes.

But ... rules are rules.

The FHSAA said Feldman had no hardship, that he transferred simply because he felt like it. It's easy to understand the association's position, but that doesn't make it right. Yes, it has rules for a reason. But isn't it a shame good kids sometimes get burned because of the not-so-good ones?

One hopes Feldman will channel his disappointment into positive energy. Hit the courts more often. Get stronger. Run more. Lift weights. Get better. Advance to state in 2003.

And continue to get straight A's. That would show them.

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