My favorite high-school football team is ranked No. 1. According to ESPN, the Miami Northwestern Bulls are the finest team in the country. USA Today and Sports Illustrated have the gall to rank Northwestern No. 2, behind Southlake (Dallas) Carroll, the defending Texas 5A state champions. The difference is academic, as the teams will meet on Saturday night, in Dallas, in what is being called the Old Spice Clash of Champions. You can watch the game on ESPNU.
Nobody wants to be that childless guy in his 30s who hangs around high-school football fields, but that's pretty much been me. I authored a book about football in Liberty City, Fla., the neighborhood where Northwestern is located. Newspaper stories I wrote inspired a documentary film, Year of the Bull, for which I served as a producer. Prior to last year's state championship game, which the Bulls won, I mingled outside Dolphin Stadium with Chico and Charlie and other Northwestern boosters. These friends love the Bulls. I'm happy when my friends are happy, so I'm happy, in general, when the Bulls win.
Yet I'm not happy to see Northwestern playing on national TV. Mortified is a more accurate term. I'm not worried that national attention might expose Northwestern as one of the worst schools in Florida, which it certainly is, or that viewers will blanch when they hear that all of the team's coaches were fired in the aftermath of a sex scandal. No, I'm worried because nothing could be less constructive for Northwestern—or any high school, for that matter—than to become a "national program." After a decade following prep sports, I can say this with confidence: When a dynasty emerges in high-school sports, there's probably something crooked going on.
The Northwestern-Carroll game will be played, appropriately enough, on the campus of Southern Methodist University. In 1987, the SMU football program got the "death penalty" when boosters were caught giving cash to players. That sort of thing happens all the time at Northwestern. I've seen it right out on the field, players still in uniform being handed wads of cash, rewards for helping boosters win bets that can climb into the thousands of dollars. In my book, I wrote of one booster who rewarded a star Northwestern sophomore with a car.
I had to laugh when Ronnie Tipps, Southlake Carroll's athletic director, expressed shock that an offshore sports book was taking bets on the Northwestern game. "High school football is one of the purest forms of entertainment," said Tipps. "It just irritates me that [gambling] drifts down to the high school level."
Oh, please. Jeweler Bailey Banks & Biddle is the exclusive advertiser at Southlake Carroll's stadium. Tipps might recall that he is allowing ESPN to televise the Northwestern game, Carroll's fourth national broadcast in four years. And perhaps Mr. Tipps can fill us in on what's pure, exactly, about flying a head coach and a couple of assistants to Miami for advance scouting of a high-school opponent.
As the professionalism that stains college sports flows down to the high-school level, corruption comes with it. Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger's classic high-school football exposé, came out almost 18 years ago. Want to find a corrupt high-school team? Just turn on the television. When Alabama's Hoover High surfaced on an MTV reality show, I started my clock. Hoover is a public high school, yet its football team somehow wins every game, every year, and started last season ranked No. 1 nationally. It was only a matter of time until a scandal emerged. Sure enough, school employees have been accused of changing grades of players on the football team.
In 2003, I went to Shreveport, La., to write about tiny Evangel Christian, which was about to play on ESPN2 against a powerhouse from California. Despite a paltry high-school enrollment of 300 students, Evangel was and is the definition of a football factory. The school has produced numerous state championships and dozens of Division I athletes, including current USC quarterback John David Booty. I wasn't shocked to hear that the state's prep sports governing body recently suspended one Evangel football player until January and fined the school $5,000 for illegal recruiting.
That sort of cheating is almost never caught in high-school sports, much less punished. Unlike at the college level, prep athletics runs on an honor system. The principals, athletic directors, and coaches who are profiting from the supposed purity of high-school sports are the ones who determine if their sports are indeed pure. And there are certainly profits to be made. Southlake Carroll's most recent head coach parlayed his team's high national rankings into the head coaching gig at North Texas, where he reportedly earns more than $400,000 a year.