Less than two months ago, Robert Kanaby's otherwise normal workday at the National Federation of State High School Associations was interrupted by a fax from Fox Sports Net. The fax from Fox television's sports cable network didn't explicitly insult Kanaby, who is the federation's executive director, or question his authority. It just disappointed him.
The April 14 fax declared Fox Sports Net's intention to begin a national top 50 ranking this fall, then stage, and broadcast, a national high school football championship game in December 2000.
Later that day, Fox sent a similar fax to media outlets across the nation. But Kanaby said no one from Fox contacted him before the announcement. And Fox did not announce that it intended to make a $50,000 cash payment or in-kind award to the title-game participants and a $5,000 payment or in-kind award to each school that is ranked at the end of the season.
Kanaby said he does not like the idea of a national championship game. Neither do many officials of the federation's member organizations -- the groups that oversee public high school athletic programs in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. And nobody is in a better position to nix the game -- which is what they say they will do.
The National Federation's bylaws -- which are not binding, but are almost always followed by its member organizations -- prohibit "any tournament, meet or contest to qualify for and/or determine a single national high school individual championship or championship team."
More than 100 schools nationwide, including some private schools such as DeMatha in Hyattsville, have signed nonbinding letters-of-intent to participate in the title game if selected. But no state has called for a change in the bylaws, and officials overseeing public school athletics in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia have expressed opposition.
More important for Fox, administrators in Florida, Texas and Ohio said they expect their organizations to oppose the game. It would be almost impossible to stage a credible national championship game if public school teams from those talent-rich states were ineligible.
"We would not sanction this event," Kanaby said. "We have no intention of even bringing the matter to a vote to determine if we want to change that bylaw."
Competition among elite high school teams in sports other than football has become increasingly national in recent years, with top squads, such as DeMatha's basketball team, competing against each other in tournaments around the country. Fox Sports Net televises state championships in many sports on most of its regional outlets, and sees the national football championship as the next logical step. Also, USA Today ranks teams nationally in many sports.
Kanaby, like several administrators around the country, expressed reservations about the logistical feasibility of the football title game.
Playoffs in many states end the first week of December or in November; Fox's game would be slated for the end of December, after the last state (usually Texas) finishes its postseason. There also is concern the game would detract from state championships.
Fox planned to have 106 of the nation's top football programs sign nonbinding letters-of-intent to participate in the game if selected, then hope that the public schools involved could convince their state associations to let them play.
Those letters-of-intent were accompanied by a cover letter that said, in part: "It is important to remember that The Fox Fab Fifty . . . was not created for the "participation" oriented high school football programs, but rather those few who believe in excellence."
The first step worked. All but two of the 106 schools approached by Fox signed or indicated they would sign the letter, according to Student Sports Inc., a high school sports marketing company and Fox's partner in the project. The agreement, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, included the financial guarantees. DeMatha is the only area school among the 106 that was approached by Fox.
"It's something worthwhile and we would want to be considered," DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor said. "You might be talking a 1-in-100 shot or 1-in-1,000 shot [of ever playing in the title game]. The opportunity to play for a national championship would be a great experience. . . .
"[Fox's offer] came in, we looked at it, we thought it was a very nice honor that they would even consider us. It's not something where we said, `Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?' or debated it back and forth."
But public schools that have accepted Fox's offer, such as Virginia's Hampton High School, are not having much success influencing their state associations.
"It's not permitted, period," said Ken Tilley, executive director of the Virginia High School League. "At the present time, I don't know of any reason to change that."
Told of Tilley's comments, Hampton Coach Michael Smith said: "That's their decision. You always cross those bridges when you get there. I would certainly hope that if we had that opportunity to play they wouldn't deny us that.
"I just think the game is a wonderful opportunity for someone. We would just have to go to our league and ask for permission. Hopefully we'd never reach an impasse like that. Maybe you could go as an AAU team, I don't know. Why would you penalize football?"
Michael Lewellen, vice president of media relations for Fox Sports Net, says he doesn't want to create a protracted showdown with the National Federation or its state associations.
"We are looking for partners here, not enemies," he said. "At the end of the day, all we're talking about is one extra game for two teams."
But the agreement between the schools and Fox states that in "the future, the championship game may be preceded by playoff games."
For now, the network is trying to change its high school sports presence from regional to national. The "Fox Fab Fifty" poll is scheduled to debut this fall and appear weekly on "Fox Sports News Primetime," the network's flagship program, which reaches 68 million households.
The agreement between the schools and Fox would grant the network exclusive national television and marketing rights to each football program for five years. And Fox would have an option to add another five years to the deals, then match any other offer after that period.
The issue likely will be broached at the federation's convention here in early July, although it is not on the agenda. But the verdict may be effectively delivered by June 15, when Texas's University Interscholastic League begins evaluating a change in its rules that would allow teams to participate in a national championship game.
Six schools in Texas have signed an agreement with Fox, but before participating they need approval from the UIL.
On June 15, a seven-member council will determine whether the concept merits discussion by a larger panel.
"I'd be very shocked if they were allowed to play," said Charles Breithaup, the UIL's athletic director. "I don't think it will pass the first step."
Athletic officials in other states questioned Fox's motives for creating a title game.
"Philosophically, we're just totally opposed to it," said Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, who added that his state's school board has rules against national championship games.
"Quite honestly, I find it a little offensive that television networks are trying to use high school kids to make money. What are you saying to kids? We try to keep some semblance of education. You just don't do this. Do you sell your soul for Fox television? I don't think so."
Virginia's Tilley, Maryland's Sparks and Allen Chin, executive director of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association, are not alone in opposing this game. Bob Goldring, a spokesman for the Ohio High School Athletic Association, and Larry Simmons, a member of the Florida High School Activities Association board of directors, said they did not expect their organizations to back the game.
Nevertheless, Fox and Student Sports Inc. are moving forward.
"There will be a postseason football game of national prominence," said Andy Bark, president of Student Sports Inc. "When teams determine it's something they want to do, sometimes it takes a while to happen. . . . Democracy needs to proceed."
But Kanaby said: "The fact that something is announced [by Fox] is a far cry from something ever taking place. As far as we're concerned, our policy prohibits it. Simply because people want to do it doesn't mean it is the right thing to do."