Bill Maxwell

High school sports suffer for glory of a few

Green Bay Packers legend Vince Lombardi said that "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

When he caught heat for that now-famous comment's apparent harshness, Lombardi offered a half-funny reprise: "If winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?"

Yes, winning is a worthy goal, and, yes, we do keep score. But is winning at all costs a worthy goal?

I don't think so, especially when winning involves young people.

This subject is the subtext of "Grass is greener on another field," an Aug. 26 article by St. Petersburg Times reporter Eduardo A. Encina about high school football players who switch schools to showcase their athletic abilities and to increase their value in the eyes of college scouts.

After all, why play football if you don't dream of a college scholarship? The best way to get the scouts, especially those from prestigious Division I-A, to notice you is to play for an established powerhouse.

A player's desire for a scholarship, a parent's hope of seeing his or her son score big on television on Saturday afternoons and a coach's demand for a superior team and bragging rights often produce unsavory practices.

The most obvious of these practices is that of outstanding players transferring from one school to another. Although Encina's article identifies only the 22 most notable transfers in the Tampa Bay area, many other players transfer. When these players switch schools, they boost their new teams' winning edge while diminishing that of their old teams. In other words, the established teams get better, and the less-established, often smaller ones get worse.

"It's gotten to the point where something's got to be done," Robinson High's coach Mike DePue said in the Times article. "Everybody isn't playing with the same deck. I'm just dumbfounded. It's a battle for the have-nots." (Robinson is the smallest public high school in Hillsborough County.)

DePue is not alone. Many other coaches statewide also complain that their best talent is being raided by their more powerful peers. The dirty secret is that these raiders are engaging in the unsportsmanlike conduct of recruiting players. They telephone these youngsters and their parents at home. They exchange text messages with players. The boldest coaches visit players' homes or meet the players elsewhere.

"It's detrimental to high school sports," Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson told the Times. "In a way that free agency has been to professional sports, high school sports have moved in the same direction. It deteriorates the concept of team."

Parents share a lot of the blame in these recruiting wars. Heeding the advice of coaches, many families move to new addresses to make their sons eligible to play at select schools. According to the Times article, one highly skilled player was ruled ineligible for his senior year after officials discovered that the player's father had falsified his address.

Many high school sports officials and coaches say that in trying to get their sons into the right schools, parents have become agents. A casualty is loyalty to a team and a school. Loyalty is a thing of the past.

I go further and argue "student" has been taken out of the "student athlete" equation in high-powered football communities. We have nothing more than "pure athletes" preparing for the next level in their sport.

The Florida High School Athletic Association, in 2006, attempted to implement a rule that would require players who switched schools to sit out a year. This effort was killed by the Legislature after widespread public opposition.

In contrast to Florida, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association voted in March, by an overwhelming majority, to force athletes who switch schools after the start of 10th grade to sit out for an entire year unless their families move.

The new rule took effect immediately, and it permits only a few exceptions, such as "financial hardship" and transfers for "educational necessities." Under the state's old system, transfers were forced to sit out the first 30 days of the season.

Florida won't be following New Jersey's lead any time soon. Here in the football-crazy Sunshine State, football is king. Players are meat on the hoof, and far too many of our coaches and parents believe that "winning is the only thing." If it weren't, we wouldn't keep score.

High school sports suffer for glory of a few 08/27/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 2, 2008 2:36pm]

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