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.
Northwestern is ostensibly regulated by the Florida High School Athletic Association. Every state has a similar group. The FHSAA, which on paper resembles the National Collegiate Athletic Association, can penalize most Florida high schools when cheating occurs. Yet the FHSAA rarely investigates anybody. “There is a cadre of enforcement officers out there who are supposed to make sure their organizations follow the rules,” FHSAA director Ron Davis once told me. “Those people are known as the principals of our member schools.”
There’s the rub. Principals can have egos. Some of them like to wear state championship rings. Some principals, living an educator’s often unglamorous life, like it when their schools appear on national television. Human beings, given enough incentive, tend to cheat. Airing high-school games on national television provides tremendous incentive.
Last year, right when Northwestern was trying to book a televised game against a major out-of-state opponent, a sex scandal emerged at the school. There was a 14-year-old girl and a school bathroom, more than one adult, and more than one incident. The girl’s mother complained to school system police and to Northwestern principal Dwight Bernard. Nothing happened. After four months of stonewalling, she happened to run into a city of Miami police officer at a coffee shop. Northwestern’s star running back, Antwain Easterling, was immediately arrested and charged with lewd and lascivious battery.
School system rules mandated Easterling’s suspension from the team for 10 days. Unfortunately for the Bulls, the state championship was less than a week away. Fortunately for the Bulls, principal Bernard chose not to suspend his running back. Easterling rushed for 157 yards in the title game. Once Northwestern won the state title, ESPN greenlighted the September game against Southlake Carroll.
That would have been it, normally. In an extremely unusual move—I still can’t believe it happened—the state attorney stepped in. Principal Bernard was arrested for “failing to report the allegations of an unlawful sex act” to police. He no longer works at the school. Neither do 20 others who helped in the cover-up.
To recap: The FHSAA never got involved in this scandal. Somehow, for some reason, Northwestern’s principal never saw fit to blow the whistle on himself. That’s the way it works in high-school sports. Absent the public fireworks of an arrest or a news story, it’s a free-for-all.
Can anything be done about this? If high-school teams are going to be on national TV making money for international corporations, and if coaches are going to leverage their national profiles into lucrative college jobs, then there needs to be a huge national bureaucracy policing high-school sports. I’d argue for the creation of this bureaucracy if it didn’t strike me as wholly ridiculous. Who would pay for it? ESPN? Burger King, sponsor of Kirk Herbstreit’s Ohio vs. USA Challenge? Kirk Herbstreit himself?
Stopping these national games would be a good first step. What exactly do we gain by pitting the top team in Texas against the top team from Florida? The kids don’t need the exposure; there’s not a scout in America unaware of the talent in Miami, nor at any of these ranked schools. Settling for a state title should be enough. The adults behind these national programs need to settle for being mere high-school coaches and teachers and principals. And ESPN? They’re allowed to broadcast these games, I guess. It’s legal. That doesn’t mean it’s right. High-school football should be as local and small-time as possible. My favorite team has enough problems as it is.