This column originally was meant to begin with the following rant:
Sorry to rain on Booker T. Washington’s 55-0 parade, but high school football does not belong on ESPN. Or on Fox Sports 1. It doesn’t belong on national television, period.
There is nothing to celebrate about ESPN televising 26 high school games this season, including 13 last weekend.
No question Booker T. is an amazing team with fabulous athletes, but there is no reason we should be inflating teenagers’ egos and skewing their priorities by putting them on national TV, where commentators gush breathlessly about them and fancy graphics tout their statistics and high school football is reduced to little more than a glorified college combine.
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High school football ought to remain what it was meant to be, and what it was when I rooted for the Miami Killian Cougars from 1981 to 1983 — a truly amateur sport that boosts school and civic pride, and is followed only by students, parents and teachers.
That is how this column began, and I was just getting started.
But then Booker T. Washington coach Tim “Ice’’ Harris returned my call and began poking holes in my argument as deftly as his Tornadoes barreled through the Norcross, Ga., defense on ESPN on Saturday.
He persuaded this curmudgeon to look at the issue in a different way. Harris is my age, 48. He, too, is nostalgic for the days when the Soul Bowl between Northwestern and Jackson was the absolute most important thing on the minds of football players at those schools … and, by the way, he says, those community games between Jackson, Northwestern, Central and Booker T. are still huge. In many ways bigger, he says, than the ESPN appearances.
But, without national television showcasing his players, far fewer of them would be noticed by college scouts. He said three of his athletes — offensive lineman Jordan Ingram, defensive end Tevin Evans and linebacker Josh Johnson — were “under the radar” before Saturday, and “overnight, their lives changed.” Their stock rose, and Harris has fielded calls from “very good” colleges inquiring about them.
Homestead coach Larry Coffey, whose team played against University School on ESPN last weekend, said the cameras focused on his star wide receiver Ermon Lane, who is headed to the University of Florida next year. But in the meantime, lesser-known players got to “fast-track themselves” onto scouts’ notebooks. Like Harris, he has received inquiries about a few of those athletes in the past 48 hours.
“If my Jackson team had played now, and we were on national TV, a lot of lives would have changed, and been saved, even, because so many more guys would have gotten college opportunities,” Harris said.
“In our day, there were only two guys on the team that major colleges knew about and those two got offers. The rest of us had to go to a small college fair put on by our Touchdown Club at the Holiday Inn where Sun Life Stadium is now. We never took campus visits. We’d meet coaches there, and take whatever offer we got. I wound up at Carthage College, a Division 3 school in Kenosha, Wis. Never saw the place. Had never been on a plane or seen snow. If we played now, I would have had so many more choices.”
Excellent point, coach. But, doesn’t it bother you even a little that the high school game has lost some of its charm? Are you concerned that national exposure can lead to overwhelming pressure, bigger egos and earlier interaction with street agents, boosters and other unsavory characters?
“Yes,” Harris said. “But, we have to accept that we’re not in 1983 anymore. The college game today is big business, and my job is to get my players college-ready. I have to prepare them for what they will see in college, and that includes TV cameras and people who may want to take advantage of them.”
One thing that can’t be argued is that ESPN cameras will magnify the good, but also the bad. Just ask Weston Cypress Bay coach Mark Guandolo, who spent 28 years building up his reputation as one of South Florida’s most-respected coaches and is now serving a two-week suspension because his open-handed slap of his quarterback’s helmet was seen all over the nation and immediately went viral on You Tube and social media.
That’s what happens when you expose yourself on national TV. Be careful what you wish for.
Although I can accept the new high school football, I don’t have to like it. I prefer the days when we’d buy “Beat Tag” stickers for $1 on the Friday mornings of games and wear them proudly all day long . They were gold football-shaped stickers with green and gold ribbons and slogans like: “Crush the Cobras!” and “Pound the Panthers!” We’d have pep rallies in the gym, and then head to Tropical Park or Tamiami Park for the games.
The PA system was always a little tinny, but that was part of the fun. The familiar announcer would call out the names of our classmates — Reggie Sutton, Allen Bishop, Frank Wesley, Rodney Hill, Derrick Bryant, Eric Marshall, Rick George, Jerome Leslie — and we all cheered because we knew them.
Every once in a while, if it was a REALLY big game, the local TV station would show up and broadcast the score and a highlight during the 11 o’clock news. The only print coverage the Cougars got was in the Miami Herald, the Miami News, and, of course, the Cougar’s Roar, where I was falling in love with journalism.
Nobody outside of the 305 area code knew or cared what happened when Killian played Palmetto, and there really was no reason they should. Forgive me for sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, but part of me still thinks that’s the way high school football ought to be. And, by the way, Michael Jackson was better than Miley Cyrus.