I went to one of those mega bookstores the other day to find a couple of preseason football magazines and right there in the middle of all those college and NFL forecasts was a magazine touting the upcoming high school football season. I nearly fainted. Increasingly, publications are picking preseason all-American high school teams. More high school games are being televised. ESPN and ABC cover the Little League sectionals and World Series a little too well for my taste.
Not long ago, Fox Sports Net declared its intention to begin a national top-50 ranking this fall and then stage and broadcast a national championship game by December 2000.
The world does not need a made-for-TV national high school football championship. It's a bad idea that has absolutely no redeeming value. Don't get me wrong, I love high school sports; I played varsity baseball and tennis. It can't be overstated how valuable those experiences were. When it appeared last winter that there wouldn't be a high school championship basketball game in the District, I got fairly indignant in this space. But that's about participation even more than competition.
But what's happening now, with newsletters, magazines and a national newspaper, USA Today, covering high school football with preseason rankings and all-star teams, and a major network talking about staging a championship game, is not about boys and girls competing. Publications and telecasts are about adults. And any time you get adults too involved in kids' games there's going to be big trouble, particularly when it involves money.
An increase in participation is welcome. An increase in exposure is frightening.
A long time ago, I started wishing every high school football team in America could go 3-7, or every high school basketball team 12-18. That would stop parents from acting like fools in the stands and at home, and perhaps prevent them from calling the newspaper every week to insist their kid is the next Michael Jordan. It would almost certainly slow the parade of groupies, AAU coaches, leeches posing as relatives, and other hangers-on who manage to charm their way into the lives of the all-Met quarterback/shooting guard/midfielder/pitcher. And it would tell more and more kids, "You're not really that good, or your team wouldn't be 3-7. You're not invincible, you're not the next John Elway, now go do your math homework."
Yesterday, I talked to Fritz McGinness, the associate director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, and the concern in his voice was unmistakable. McGinness' organization is against Fox Sports Net's proposed high school football playoff. He has devoted his professional life to the administration of high school sports, yet when asked about the deifying of high school jocks and sports, he said, "I don't know where it's headed." I could envision him shaking his head from side to side. "Our number one concern is the infringement on academic time. And okay, even if we say it would be fun to have a national tournament, how feasible is it? Quite frankly, any rankings at the high school level would be geared toward particular areas and teams who've had a certain level of success in the past. Also, how could you confine something like this to one sport? How could you say no to boys and girls basketball, or girls volleyball, for example? It becomes an insurmountable issue at the high school level."
Even if it could be done, it shouldn't be done. Anything that tends to make gods of these teenagers is something that should be avoided at all costs. If you're the MVP of a nationally televised football playoff game at 15, where's the incentive to spend a little extra time on that English Lit paper? You'd have some little brute grabbing a Fox microphone to announce, "I'm going to DisneyWorld" before challenging Brett Favre for the starting job in Green Bay.
Where does it go from there? "We're looking live at the Middle School Championship best-of-five series, and down on the sideline standing with 12-year-old John Dough is our sideline reporter."
I don't have to ask "When is enough?" because I know we passed that point a long time ago. I used to be relatively upset at my parents -- both of whom worked full-time jobs -- because they rarely attended any of my baseball games or tennis matches. In hindsight, I'm glad. Never once, as obsessed as I was with sports, did I think my baseball game was the most important thing going on in my household. Would there have been that perspective if cameras and a blazer-wearing anchor had been showing up for the games?
Inflated sense of self leads all too often to a sense of entitlement, and high school jocks can feel pretty self-important anyway, without the help of network TV and sycophants who feel the need to know factoids about some 15-year-old left tackle from Deadwood, Texas. This "knowledge" gets you what, exactly? You mean getting your name (and perhaps picture) in the local newspaper, and playing in the district playoffs, aren't enough anymore?
It all comes back to adults trying to make a buck, and the misguided emphasis on competition over participation. McGinness, who said he worries that the pressure on high school kids to compete is "climbing," said, "When you talk about national rankings and a tournament for high school kids, you risk defeating the purpose of what high school programs are supposed to be all about."