Last night's report by Frontline on PBS was a sobering view of the commercialization of high school football. The show featured a small, private school in Arkansas who decided in the 1990s that they wanted to be able to compete at an elite level. It took several years, but their very significant investments recently started to pay off with very big dividends. They were repeatedly competing for state titles and attracting high quality athletes to move into the area to enroll. However, the report also showed that the increases in the program have not been without some serious drawbacks.
The report discussed what the excesses in one program creates via competition in neighboring and rival programs and, eventually, how they impact the game itself. The size, strength, and speed of high school teams today are growing at a very rapid pace. Because of these increases, the force of the collisions are increasing as well. This has led to some staggering statistics in the amount of TBIs that have occurred across the country. 60,000 TBIs are reported in the US due to high school football per year according to this report. When you combine that with the statistic that only about one third of high schools have a full time AT on staff to manage the injuries, this number gets even more intimidating.
Also included in this report were several quotable lines that I found appalling. "We don't cancel practice because of the heat" was one of the quotes that I really had a hard time comprehending. Granted, northeast Ohio is not the same climate as Arkansas and Texas and the heat is a concern for them all season log. (Up here, issues with heat are rare after week 3 of the season in early September.) I am sure that the heat index also climbs higher with greater frquency than it does here, so I understand that practice has to happen at some point. However, I wish the report would have stated that these practices are altered to accommodate the climate when it does get excessively hot. I am fairly sure that happens regularly.
The other quotable line in the documentary was regarding the return to play status of an athlete with a TBI being based, in part, on the game situation. There is not a single coach or AT at this point that should be unaware of the current standards of practice that would preclude returning an athlete with a TBI to play in the same game. I found this to be exceptionally disturbing and the coach to almost be bragging about his bravado in the situation.
With all that was presented in this documentary, I do have one big critique on it. This project paints coaches in a VERY negative manner. The film claims that the external pressures to have and maintain a winning program are so great that it often corrupts the coach into making poor choices. While I am not naive enough to believe that this doesn't occur, I have maintain that, at least for everyone that I have worked with, that this is just simply untrue. The overwhelming majority of coaches take their commitment to the kids they work with very seriously and would never knowingly put a youngster in an unacceptable situation. The coaches and school administrators that I currently work with daily are a testament to this assertion. They do understand that, in the end, it is their responsibility to educate the kids and guide them to being responsible adults, not to win at all costs. I do wish that the report would have indicated somehow that this is not, by any means, the majority of coaches that would risk a kid's future to win a game.
If anything, I usually get greater resistance to holding a kid out of game from parents and the athletes themselves, not from the coaches. I think that this is where more education is required and that films like this will at least spawn healthy discussions about these topics.
Addendum: After an online discussion with the film maker in an online chat, she reassured me that the coaches that she interviewed were more caring for the kids than I thought they appeared to be in the video. This was very reassuring.