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College Sports: the dark side of high school sports

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posted on Dec, 16 2004 @ 07:42 PM
from todays ny times, the author of this column is the guy who wrote "friday night lights" what jumps out at me are the statistics on the number of high schoolers who have tried steroids

December 16, 2004
Innocents Afield


EARLIER this month, the high school football season ended around the country. There were the state championships and before that, the annual Thanksgiving Day games. There were the rose-colored images of innocence and valor and healthy competition, attributes that we continue to insist upon from sports in America even though such attributes have become extinct.

We are clinging to the supposed virtues of high school athletics with particular zeal. Everybody knows that pro sports is too far gone (take your pick of recent scandals). Everybody knows that college sports is too far gone (take your pick of recent scandals). But still there's high school sports, still the classic battle of one rival against the other in shaggy glory, what James Jones described in "From Here to Eternity" as "the magnificent foolishness of youth as if the whole of life depended on this game." A half-century later, the depiction of noble sacrifice at the high school level still forms our baseline, gives us hope that something in sports is still unsullied, restores our faith in the family values fad that has overtaken the low-carb diet.

Except that high school sports in America has become an epidemic of win-at-all-costs in too many places, just as corroded as college and the pros; actually more so because none of the ends can possibly justify the means when many of those involved are still too young to vote. No Super Bowl with television ratings through the roof. No Bowl Championship Series games with millions watching. Just millions of dollars spent by certain school districts that cannot possibly begin to explain the millions they are spending. Just booster clubs, like little Mafia families, filling in the gap between what the board of education is willing to cough up and what the athletic department claims that it needs to keep churning out those precious state championships. Just coaches in some places making close to $90,000 a year without teaching a class. Just further social stratification between the athlete and the non-athlete, those who are in and those who are out and feel humiliated and ridiculed with repercussions that can become deadly. Just steroid abuse, including a 17-year-old baseball player in a Dallas suburb who committed suicide because what of his parents believe was depression caused by stopping anabolic steroids.

Maybe I'm overselling the problem. But my point of reference is the late 1980's, when I moved to Odessa, Tex., to do research for my book. When it was published in 1990, Permian High School in Odessa became a national symbol of everything that was wrong in high school sports - spending close to $70,000 on chartered jet trips to several away games, building a high school football stadium that seated nearly 20,000 and cost $5.6 million.

Over the past 14 years, I have had hundreds of conversations with parents about high school sports careening out of control. In virtually all of them, the reaction has been the same - approving nods of solidarity, followed by my own queasy sense that they weren't really listening to a word I said, their own private SportsCenter moment reeling in their heads for their sons and daughters. Over those 14 years, the excesses have only gotten worse.

As USA Today reported in October, millions upon millions of dollars are being spent on high school football stadiums and related buildings across the country. Texas, of course, leads the arms race with new or pending high school football stadium projects in the Dallas area alone costing close to $180 million. But in Jefferson, Ind., as part of a privately financed $8 million building project, there's a new 6,000-seat high school football stadium with an expensive video scoreboard. In Valdosta, Ga., $7.5 million was spent to renovate its football stadium, including building a museum to the glory of the Valdosta Wildcats. North Hills High, in the Pittsburgh region, spent $10 million to renovate the stadium and build a 13,000-square-foot field house.

The arguments for these sports centers are as familiar as they are wearying as they are transparent: the football programs not only are self-sustaining but also support other sports; these are stadiums the community wants so there's no harm, particularly when they are privately financed.

But no community, at least no community I would want my children to live in, can justify any of these monoliths. In an age where educational resources are dwindling, how can the building of a lavish new stadium or a field house possibly be justified, much less needed? What does it say to the rest of the student body, the giant-sized majority who do not play football, except that they are inferior, a sloppy second to the football stars who shine on Friday night. How can a community brag about its ability to get financing for a multimillion-dollar football stadium when it can't conjure up the money to hire more teachers that would lead to the nirvana of smaller class sizes? If it's the desire of boosters to pour money into sports, and it usually is, then why not use these private funds for a physical education program to reduce obesity among teenagers?

IT isn't simply money that has contributed to the professionalism of high school sports. As a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, I spent a year uncovering abuses in Illinois as disturbing as anything in Texas - high school coaches recruiting eighth-grade players with glossy pitches and come-ons straight out of the major-college mold, parents getting so many calls from high school recruiters that they simply had their phones turned off, high school basketball coaches siphoning off Chicago's best players just so they wouldn't compete against them. Jump a level down into that emotional hell known as travel team - there isn't a parent of a travel team player who can't recite at least one horror story of another parent going berserk or a coach flipping out in the name of providing 10- and 11- and 12-year-olds with a little extra competition.

In October, the National Association of State Boards of Education issued a report calling for greater oversight of high school athletics because of the alarming trickle-down of virtually every bad college practice. The list of concerns included steroid use, shady shoe agents, mercenary coaches, dubious recruiting tactics and extravagant gifts. Steroid abuse does exist in high schools. As many as 11 percent of the nation's youth have used them, according to a study by the Mayo Clinic. Based on other research, some of the most disturbing users are freshman high school girls, with a rate of abuse at a minimum of 7 percent. "We have a moral obligation to prevent the exploitation of high school students," the national association said.

Those are important words, but I'm afraid they are going to fall on deaf ears.

Sports as an institution is every bit as powerful in this country as corporate America or the Catholic Church. Yet sports are still considered a sidelight, ancillary to our daily experience. It's still too easy to put on those rose-colored glasses, indulge in Grantland Rice images of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame and Knute Rockne speeches of winning one for the Gipper. It's too easy to get wrapped up in the supposed character-building elements of it, the false narratives of heroes and come-from-behind glory fed us by newspapers and television networks and cable networks in their ceaseless search for easy emotional aphrodisiacs.

Which means that high school sports will continue to fester into shameful overemphasis in too many places, will continue to emulate the college sports model that is America's educational shame. Which means that by the time we completely ruin the institution of sports for our teenagers, it will be too late to do anything except appoint a national commission to try to figure out how we could have missed so many warning signs


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