For the first time, an entire season of high school football will be televised nationally this year. It’s not just a few early games before the college and pro seasons get going. It’s season-long now, 26 games on ESPN, starting this weekend, and another seven on the new Fox Sports 1.
More than a few high school administrators, the people entrusted with the education of the nation’s 14- to 18-year-olds, simply couldn’t say no to the intoxicating mix of lights, cameras and TV timeouts. They have decided that it’s not only just fine, it’s actually preferable, to parade boys in shoulder pads and helmets around the country not only on weekends but also on school nights, all for the benefit of our sports networks’ insatiable desire to show Americans more football.
Have they all lost their minds? The honest answer is, yes they have.
We know that most of our big-time universities already have sold their souls for college sports, but it’s becoming clearer by the year that it’s happening in our high schools as well. It’s one thing for a high-school football team – or girls or boys soccer team or softball or baseball team – to be featured on the hometown evening news, or even on a local cable broadcast, playing a cross-town or neighborhood rival.
It’s quite another when the sports networks are moving high school football teams around the nation like props on a stage, and along for the ride are the principals and school superintendents who are supposed to be in charge of educating our children. These so-called academic leaders might be able to justify the total disruption of the students’ lives and school schedules if they were making money from the network broadcasts, but they aren’t. ESPN and Fox aren’t buying these schools new books for the library; they generally pay only for the schools’ travel expenses.
“We’re almost prostituting ourselves putting high school games on TV,” Harry Welch, the football coach at Santa Margarita High in California – which is in fact putting itself on TV in October on Fox – told USA Today Sports’ Jim Halley.
This bizarre need to nationally televise things that are best kept local inevitably takes a toll on the last people we’d hope it would. By putting hundreds of very young football players on national TV each year, we create winners, of course, which can be wonderful, perhaps life-altering, for the lucky kid who makes the big play.
But it also means we create losers on a national stage. We’re not talking about Bill Buckner or Scott Norwood. When they made their mistakes, they were pro athletes.
These are kids, most of them barely out of braces. The more prep games are nationally televised, the more these youngsters won’t get to make their mistakes in front of local crowds gathered in their high school stadiums. Now they will fumble at the goal line or miss the chip-shot field goal in front of the nation. Is that worth it so ESPN and Fox Sports 1 can fill their airtime?
We’ve already seen how this plays out in sports where children bubble to the surface well before they graduate from high school. Tennis, gymnastics and figure skating have given us some phenomenal successes, but they’ve also produced hundreds of young people who have been placed on the discard pile even before they received their driver’s license.
We’re clearly not troubled enough as a society to stop this, so on it goes. What’s the over-under on how long it will take the arms race between ESPN and Fox to give us a national high school football playoff? Ten years? Twenty?
If TV wants it, it will happen. As we’ve seen.