THERE'S A SAYING among members of certain American Indian tribes that to have one's picture taken is like having your soul stolen. The saying obviously pertains to still pictures, but it's not too far a stretch to think that the soul of high school athletics is up for grabs with the increasing presence of television.
In the last week, two potential deals involving high school football and basketball telecasts have come to light, hopefully raising warning flags about what comes next.
In one deal, the nation's top-ranked football team, South- lake-Carroll of Texas, will play the No. 17 team, Denton-Ryan, on Oct. 14 on either ESPN or ESPN2, according to the Dallas Morning News.
In another, Lawrence North High of Indiana will host a team from Poplar Bluff, Mo., in a basketball game in December, with the hook being that two of the top-rated players, 7-foot center Greg Oden and 6-9 forward Tyler Hansbrough, will face each other.
An ESPN spokesman said yesterday that neither deal had been finalized.
Televising of high school games is nothing new, of course. ESPN, for instance, carried a game last season with the De La Salle football team of Northern California that won 151 consecutive games before that streak was broken earlier this month.
And who can forget the Worldwide Leader's carriage of two games involving LeBron James' St. Vincent-St. Mary team from Akron, Ohio, two years ago? ESPN also aired a game last year that featured Dwight Howard, the Atlanta forward who was taken first in June's NBA draft.
So, the precedent has been set, but to paraphrase the great Foghorn Leghorn, there's something kind of ewww about the whole process.
Where to begin? Let's start with the premise that if power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then television, as the absolute power in sports, is the absolute corrupter.
Think not? How else to explain the mess that is college athletics, with the recruiting scandals, the jumping of coaches from one school to the next and the jumping of schools from one conference to the next?
It's all about getting good enough to be noticed, and nothing provides notice, not to mention a sense of importance, more than the presence of television.
And if you think the college feeding frenzy is bad, just wait until someone comes up with the idea of a regular schedule of televised high school events. The addition of television would be an invitation for schools to begin pillaging and looting other schools for talent, so as to make themselves cable-ready.
There will be cheating, backbiting, finger-pointing and chicanery aplenty, enough to make those barroom brawls in old Western movies look like a quilting bee.
To be fair, an ESPN spokesman said the channel doesn't have any current plans to show any more high school football this year beyond the Southlake-Carroll-Denton-Ryan game. The spokesman said ESPN does not pay the schools a rights fee and doesn't arrange the games directly, leaving that to a Chicago-based marketing firm, which contacts the schools to gauge interest, then presents ESPN with a potential product.
The spokesman said the channel selects games "on a case-by-case basis" and looks for contests with a "national appeal," the presumption being that people want to see the so-called top-ranked football team or the stud who will jump straight to the NBA, as James and Howard did.
The problem is that, while the glut of college football and basketball games on television allows a viewer to make informed judgments about the value of the competition, showing a single high school game provides no context, no real sense as to what makes a team or a kid so good.
Indeed, rather than showing the occasional game, ESPN might better serve the cause of high school sports by bringing back the excellent Scholastic Sports America, the weekly show that paid tribute to the brains as well as the brawn of teen athletics.
Of course, in the long run, it's not television's job to provide depth or to say that it's not a good idea for the kids in a school in Indiana to play a school in Missouri, just so that people in Maryland or California can see it. Unless he or she is the parent of a teen athlete, a network programmer only sees a 168-hour per week schedule that has to be filled. What fills it doesn't really matter, or hadn't you noticed all the poker shows?
Making the hard choices, ensuring that play remains play is a job that belongs to administrators and parents, the people who ought to be guarding the souls of the kids as zealously as possible.