The trouble with high school football is that it has never had as many of the great things the college game has—illegal recruiting, win-or-die coaching, big-money pressure and, of course, television timeouts.
But now, thanks to the people who run high school sports, all that good stuff could be coming to your town! Starting this season, SportsChannel America, a cable TV service wired into 8.5 million homes, is televising 14 high school football games to a breathless nation (24 other events, most of them basketball games, will be shown this winter and spring). There will be some dandies. For instance, who will be able to resist the Sept. 22 clash in Kentucky between Mayfield and Tilghman Paducah?
It's essential that high school kids appear on national TV, because it's never too early for an athlete to start thinking like a prima donna. Once a youngster in Savannah gets his first fan letter from somebody in Boise, who needs geometry? Sorry, Mrs. Beasley, I can't make class today. Here's a note from my agent.
And won't this be a great opportunity for upwardly mobile high school coaches? A good showing against Paducah, and Notre Dame might be on the phone. So we'll play star tailback Tommy despite his strained knee, just for this one game. And maybe we can persuade that 275-pound kid from across town to move in with his uncle on our side of the tracks and start playing for us. Hey, he'll be on national TV. He'll get scholarship offers simply by waving to his mom. Besides, the athletic director will let us fudge the rules a little. Every time we're on the tube, his budget gets fatter by $1,200, right?
This first national television deal is a five-year arrangement between SportsChannel and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHSA) for $250,000 a year, but you know the money will go up. Some local deals already beat it. A Minneapolis TV station just paid $1.5 million to televise the state high school hockey tournament for the next three years. Nike pays some of the country's most influential high school basketball coaches small fortunes to outfit their teams in Nike's products. Reebok has paid the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) $1 million for a three-year contract that makes Reebok the main corporate sponsor for CIF championship events. When last season's CIF Southern Section Player of the Year, Glendora High basketball forward Tracy Murray, was pictured in the federation's bulletin wearing Nikes, a Reebok executive made a call to the CIF office in L.A. that could have been heard in Bakersfield.
High school trophies aren't what they used to be either, what with so many of them bearing company logos. Last year one trophy actually bore this inscription—I'm not making this up—CALIFORNIA INTERSCHOLASTIC FEDERATION/SOUTHERN SECTION REEBOK ROUND TABLE PIZZA TRACK AND FIELD CHAMPIONSHIPS. This kind of thing could start an engravers' strike.
California even has an official ring maker for each section of the state. When Corona del Mar High recently wanted to have its state championship volleyball rings made by a different manufacturer, it found out it couldn't. Congratulations on a great season, kids. Now, if you'll all open the boxes of Cap 'n Crunch in front of you, you 11 find your championship rings.
And if you think of the average high school football game as a nice, zippy affair, you've got another think coming. SportsChannel will have one 60-second and one 90-second TV timeout each quarter. Coach, I can't play the last quarter. Mom wants me home by 11:30.
Of course, the NFSHSA insists that national television won't spoil high school sports. "We're going to present the typical high school game," says John Gillis, an assistant to the federation's director. "We don't want to put any undue pressure on these kids."
Nah. A 15-year-old kid drops the winning touchdown pass in front of a few million people, that's not going to affect him much. It's nothing that moving to Belize won't take care of.
The sad truth is that, with voters fighting taxes, high school sports programs need money any way they can get it, and the NFSHSA figures TV is as good a way as any. As far as high school sports are concerned, it's television and sponsorship and Reebok kickoffs—or cutbacks.
But so what? If Powerhouse High can't rent the big college stadium this year, so what? If it has to play on Saturday afternoons because it can't afford lights, so what? If it can have only six assistant coaches instead of 12 and only one film projector instead of three, so what? Why does high school America want to go big time when big time has already been proven to smell like old game socks?
Let's make the high schools a deal. Get rid of the TV, the logos and the greed, and we'll promise to buy a lot more cupcakes at their bake sales.