Fantasy sports, high schools - do they mix?

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

October 01, 2006|By MILTON KENT

It was William Hurt as a pretty-boy, ethically challenged anchorman in the brilliant film Broadcast News who lamented that it was tough to know where the line between legitimate news and entertainment was anymore because "they keep moving that little sucker."

Mike Bass, senior editor/sports of the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, wonders, too, about how to strike a proper balance between giving the public comprehensive high school sports coverage and not making a mockery of the games.

Bass thought the Pioneer Press had found an entertaining new way to showcase high school football through a fantasy football offering that did not involve the exchange of money.

However, a steady drumbeat of criticism from some school officials, including the withholding of statistics and other information from the paper in protest, has caused Bass to rethink what's appropriate in the presentation of high school athletics.

"To you, you might say that it [high school fantasy football] sort of feels wrong," Bass said. "To us, it doesn't feel wrong, but I understand that everybody feels different, and I wouldn't tell them that they're not entitled to their feelings. But once you break it down to a logical thing, is this just an extension of where we're going anyway, or is this so different and completely over the top?"

With circulation declining at virtually every big-city newspaper around the country, editors and reporters are searching for creative ways to draw in new readers, particularly younger ones, who have proved to be especially elusive for newspapers to reach.

"High school sports have changed over the years," Bass said. "What people were writing 30 or 40 years ago is different, just as America has changed. If you're in a competitive situation, you're looking for ways - professional, interesting ways - to get people to read your stories.

"With high schools, you're looking for ways to get kids' names in the paper, different ways to present things. This was an idea, a way to present some of the kids who are doing really well in a fun way."

Bass and John Pluym, who supervises the Pioneer Press' coverage of the 60 or so public and private high schools in the St. Paul area, decided last spring to go beyond the listing of statistics, stories on local athletes and the naming of Athletes of the Week - things that many papers, including The Sun, do on a regular basis.

Immediately, area kids took to the concept of fantasy football, Bass said, but they began to encounter opposition from schools and conferences. Their objections were centered on a feeling that the paper was using high school sports to promote gambling, which isn't true, Bass said, because there are no fees involved.

The other knock on fantasy football for high schoolers was that it seemed to promote individual accomplishments over those of a team. That one resonated, Bass said.

"Probably from a coach's standpoint, they're worried that this is another thing that will go to their heads and make them try to be more selfish on the field," Bass said.

"But we can also counter with other things. The kids that we might be writing about are better players. Aren't a lot of them going to end up going to college and being faced with different things? Isn't that a lot of what coaches have to deal with? You could have a great philosophical argument going back and forth here. Where is the line?"

A number of schools and conferences, Bass said, began withholding statistics and information as a form of protest, raising such a ruckus that last Tuesday, Bass asked his readers to e-mail the paper their feelings about whether it should continue the fantasy football contest.

"There are things you try and see if it works," Bass said. "If it doesn't work, ideally, you want to play it through the course of the season. You don't want to stop. But we also want to be responsive to our readers and people we're covering and make sure we're doing things the right way."

The Washington Post began a high school fantasy football contest this year, a mythical match pitting players from Northern Virginia schools against those from the District of Columbia and the Maryland suburbs.

Jon DeNunzio, the Post's high school editor, said the paper has put caps on the stats that can be used and restricts the players' availability to games the editors and staff believe will be competitive.

So far, DeNunzio said, the paper has only received one critical comment about the contest.

"People always say that, `Sports is about the team.' You hear that very strongly and it's a lesson that kids learn in high school sports," DeNunzio said. "We didn't want to undermine that. But at the same time, we felt like fantasy football has become such an ingrained part of sports culture now and it was a different way for people who can relate to it to have fun with it."

These issues are bound to arise in the years to come, as the media - print and broadcast - continue to look for new and inexpensive coverage items that will draw more eyes and ears to their products. At the same time, media members will have to ask to what extent high school athletics should be the vehicle to drive that coverage.

"Where's the line?" Bass said. "We're all trying to find it and that line may be changing every day."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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