In this week’s football wrap-up, Gregg Easterbrook looks at the most tangible evidence of the popularity of football in America: that there are more than eight times as many high school state championships as there are states in the union:
High school football playoff season has begun across the country, and continues nearly till Christmas. The result will be not 50 titlists but at least 425 state high school football champions. In the N.F.L., every team save one is ground into dust. In high school football, it’s trophies galore!
Expanding postseason brackets at the high school level are another indicator of the runaway rise of football popularity.
Back in the day, there weren’t hundreds of high school state champions; many states had no postseason. I graduated from Kenmore West High School near Buffalo; in 1969 the football team finished ranked first in New York state. That storied squad appeared in eight games, then put away its gear because there were no playoffs to attend. This year’s Kenmore West team suited up for 10 regular-season dates followed by two postseason contests. The Blue Devils’ 10-2 finish got them only to the subregionals of a now-sprawling postseason tournament producing 16 New York state football champions.
New York state pales before Texas and California. In the crazed Texas system, 704 public high schools playing 11-man football made this year’s postseason; plus playoffs for private institutions and schools in the six-man rural version of the sport. Texas offers 10 brackets of 64 schools, each football bracket about the size of the March Madness basketball tourney. Hundreds of Texas playoff games build up to the Lone Star State naming 26 state high school football champions. The last trophy will not be determined till the double-whistle of a night game Dec. 19 at the stadium where the Houston Texans perform. To win a Texas state title, a high school needs to appear in 16 games — exactly the same wear-and-tear on the body as in an N.F.L. regular season.
All this expansion of the high school football year is great … for the fans and the coaches. It’s definitely not so beneficial to the players on the field: not only significant increases in the chance for injury, but also increased distraction from actual school work. Too many football players are hoping to get into college on a football scholarship (and many of them also nurture unrealistic dreams of a professional career in the NFL after college). Perhaps it’s because high schools don’t cover the statistics on that:
The old shorter seasons allowed high school football team members to participate in the extracurricular activities that are essential for college acceptance. Admissions officers know that teenagers with weak grades and only “football team” on their application are not prepared for college.
But won’t the guys get recruited? This is the Grand Illusion of contemporary high school football — devote your high school days to playing in a huge number of games, as well as to year-round conditioning, film study and 7-on-7, because recruiters will come calling. Hundreds of thousands of tween and teen males happily dwell in this Grand Illusion. Then recruiters don’t call.
Each spring, roughly one high school senior football player in 60 is offered an N.C.A.A. scholarship. Roughly one in 125 receives an “ath admit,” acceptance to a college he would not otherwise have qualified for. Athletic admits to the Ivy League or the New England Small College Athletic Conference are solid gold, better in many ways than N.C.A.A. offers. Rolled together, about one high school letterman in 40 gets a college boost from football. While one in 40 gets great news, many more on the football team end up with reduced chances of regular college admission plus regular financial aid.
Expansion of high school football seasons and playoffs has not happened to serve students. More high school games serve the interests of coaching-staff adults who want to pretend to be Don Shula, of state sports organizations that want to be more important, of hustlers who run the growing universe of “showcases” and “combines” that bilk parents of fees in return for the false promise of a recruiting edge for their children.
It’s been nearly a generation since most companies stopped accepting job applications for “entry level jobs” on a career path without at least a university degree. Encouraging teenage boys to ignore academic work through high school to get a microscopic shot at getting into college through football is a form of fraud. Worse, the way high school football players are treated (both in the form of adulation from fellow students and pampering by staff) further encourages them to keep dreaming rather than to keep football in its proper place and getting an education. At least to the extent that high schools are still equipped to teach, anyway.