Each year roughly 1,200,000 boys play and 100,000 men coach high school football. It's one of those social phenomena that are so big that nobody thinks much about it. Yet, prep football -- by uneasily combining the norms of the middle of the last century, which seemed in the 1940s to be the Century of the Common Man, and of our own Century of the Superstar, in which many watch but only a chosen few perform -- offers a window into America's past and future.
The new age of elitist high school football was epitomized by the nationally televised game played September 15 between USA Today's #2-ranked squad, the well-drilled Dragons from exurban Southlake Carroll, winner of three straight Texas championships, and the star-packed #1-ranked Bulls of inner city Miami Northwestern, the 2006 Florida titleholders.
And yet, this type of made-for-television exhibition remains more the state-of-the-art exception to the conservative rule that, at least compared to basketball, high school football hasn't changed culturally all that much since Paul Brown was coaching the Massillon, Ohio Tigers to glory in the 1930s. For instance, close to 20,000 fans showed up November 2 for the 73rd meeting of Garfield and Roosevelt, two all-Latino high schools in East Los Angeles that seldom send players to college programs. This "East L.A. Classic" remains one of the countless local football rivalries that thrive despite the homogenizing dominance of the national media.
High school football continues to be a repository of many of the authority-respecting and communal virtues of the WWII-winning Greatest Generation. On the high school football field, America's old struggle between nurture and nature -- between the faith that winners can be molded out of the common folk versus the ever-spreading sneaking suspicion that success is mostly in the genes and in private tutoring -- can still battle it out on relatively equal terms.
Foreigners have long been astounded by the extravagant number of players on American football teams and by the expensive armor in which they are encased. And yet, because only the most carefully rehearsed teamwork can prevent chaos on the gridiron, their numbers and anonymity have helped retard the growth of superstaritis in football.
In contrast, basketball, with its fewer and more recognizable players, can be dominated by one or two stars freelancing. Successful coaches increasingly emphasize recruiting genetic anomalies over training normal kids. For instance, USC basketball coach Tim Floyd recently promised full scholarships to two eighth graders!
November 17, 2007
Here's the beginning of my essay on high school football. The whole thing appears in the 12/03/2007 issue of The American Conservative: