Is national coverage of high schools out of bounds?

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

September 13, 2006|By MILTON KENT

Understand this: Burke Magnus isn't responsible for the decline in civility in American society, for holes in the ozone layer or even for bathtub rings.

And, as an ESPN executive in charge of programming on its college-oriented channel, Magnus shouldn't be called on the carpet for whatever wretched excess may come from regularly televising high school football games. As he sees it, he's only partially feeding a beast that has heretofore only been nibbling, but is munching and getting bigger with each passing day.

"In today's world, the specialization of television, especially in sports, relative to sports programming, has gotten to the point where people are expecting this," said Magnus, vice president and general manager of ESPNU.

"There's a lot of interest in high school football nationwide, not just from the perspective of the competition on the field, but interest in recruiting and how that funnels into kids' future competition on the field in college, and who knows, the pros."

Indeed, high school football is, as the kids say, blowin' up in terms of media attention. With Gridiron Gang, a new movie starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the coach of a team of former gang members; Two A Days, an MTV reality show chronicling a year in the life of an Alabama team; and a coming NBC series, Friday Night Lights, based on the successful book and movie about the obsession one West Texas town has over its team, the sport has never been so popular.

And that attention has spilled back onto the playing field and into national news and media outlets. While USA Today has extensively covered high school football for most of its existence, Sports Illustrated this year dramatically increased its coverage, with daily updates on its Web page and with a recent 15-page section in the magazine that was breathless in its prose, but short on perspective.

Not everyone is happy with the new breadth of national attention. Gilman coach Biff Poggi, whose Greyhounds saw a 17-game winning streak end last Friday at DeMatha, thinks the growing coverage has the potential to get in the way of the most important function of high school athletics, namely teaching.

"There are important lessons about character and overcoming self-imposed limitations and learning how to love one another and becoming a community helping one another," Poggi said. "Look at how diverse this group is, socioeconomically, racially, religiously. This is an incredibly diverse group. You learn lessons here you can't learn any place else and that has nothing to do with playing on national television or winning a national championship. That's nuts. It puts too much pressure on the kids."

The pressure has already arrived, albeit at a relatively safe distance from Baltimore and Maryland. The centerpiece of SI's preview, Hoover High in suburban Birmingham, Ala., laid out a frightening circumstance where the school spends an average of $450,000 a year on football, where the players sometimes stay in hotels the day before home games and are given a police escort to games.

Hoover, which has won six straight state titles, is the focus of Two A Days, which not only chronicles the team's push for a state championship last year, but also delves heavily into the players' private lives.

"Do those kids look like they're having any fun? It doesn't look like it to me," Poggi said.

Poggi's fears may very well have come to life in late August, when ESPN carried a game between Belle Glades Central of Florida and Byrnes of South Carolina. The scene looked right out of a Ravens game, with a gaudy logo at midfield, a high-tech scoreboard right out of an NFL stadium and a filled-to-capacity 10,000-seat stadium.

On the field, the game was marred by penalties of the face mask and unsportsmanlike conduct variety, as the players clearly preened for the television audience while the announcers emphasized where the talented players had received college scholarship offers.

The lone hopeful development of the day was that a touchdown was called back because, at the end of a long run, the running back dived into the end zone from the 3-yard line, no doubt emulating a move he had seen in an NFL game.

That's not at all what ESPN is looking for, Magnus said. The 13-game package, airing mostly on ESPNU, is intended to tap into the public's growing hunger for college recruiting information, not get the next Terrell Owens ready for SportsCenter.

"There's a great concern about that," Magnus said. "We try and take the approach that we're going to try and do this with the purest of intentions and with a straightforward presentation that these kids are in high school. They're not college athletes and they're not professional athletes."

The channel does not select the teams directly, but instead deals with Paragon Marketing Group, a Skokie, Ill.-based promoter, that negotiates with the schools. Rashid Ghazi, a partner at Paragon, said the company, which makes its money by selling advertising within the telecast, pays the expenses of the teams -- host and visitor -- and makes sure that no spectator pays more than $10 for any contest.

"We've done over 20 of these games, and we have yet to receive a negative comment from a coach or an administrator," Ghazi said.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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