Sunday, May 22

HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL IN TEXAS -- THE OUTLANDISH COST OF FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

"Sports Illustrated," in its May 16th edition ("The $20 Million Stadium Boom" by Gene Menez on pages 68-69) and today's "Houston Chronicle" (registration required), in a front page, above-the-fold story ("Pigskin priorities") by Thomas Korosec, point to a new and growing phenomenon in high school football here in Texas: the multi-million dollar, mega-stadium with luxuries that would be the envy of many college campuses. To me, it's high school athletics gone wild, school administrators and athletic directors gone nuts, and taxpayers gone mad out of their minds, forgetting that education is the primary purpose of any school, from elementary right up through colleges and universities. And if you look at high school drop-out rates here in the Lonestar State, particularly in the state's many large metropolitan areas, you have to shake your head in disbelief that limited funding is going to the football programs, rather than to the classrooms. Scoring the touchdown on Friday night appears to be taking precedence in Texas over scoring well on the SAT (or even just earning a diploma).

As Gene Menez of "SI" writes:

In one respect the new high school football stadium in Denton, Texas, is like any other in the United States: It has a regulation playing field and a pair of goalposts. But that's where the similarities end. The $18.3 million, 12,000-seat facility has two VIP suites that can accommodate 22 people each and a $900,000 scoreboard with a video screen that shows replays.

The stadium, which was constructed last year with voter-approved bonds and is used by Denton, Guyer and Ryan high schools, is one of the many athletic Taj Mahals that have been erected over the last six years for high school teams in the suburbs around Dallas-Fort Worth. The list of facilities is impressive.

• In Fort Worth, 16 miles south of Denton, Northwest High is set to open a $19.5 million, 9,500-seat football stadium that features 950 club seats and a two-tier press box with two community rooms.

• In Southlake, 23 miles south of Denton, Carroll High plays in a four-year-old, $15.3 million stadium that Major League Soccer's Dallas Burn borrowed as its home field in 2002. Carroll, whose football team was ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today last fall, also has an 80-yard-long indoor practice facility that in 2001 was occasionally used by the Dallas Cowboys.

• In North Richland Hills, 11 miles south of Southlake, a six-year-old, 12,000-seat stadium is home to football teams from Birdville, Haltom and Richland high schools. The $11.9 million complex, which includes a banquet room that seats 800, was chosen as the site of the field hockey competition by the Dallas Olympic Committee in its bid for the 2012 Summer Games.

As Thomas Korosec of the "Houston Chronicle" writes:

Looking six stories down from the VIP-ready "Texas Room" to a field made of the same brand of artificial turf on which the Dallas Cowboys play, Ken Purcell declares, "This is probably the best high school football stadium in the country. I'm not making any apologies."

Purcell, Denton Independent School District's athletics director, said he asked architects to incorporate aspects of state-of-the-art fields in Waco, Southlake and Mesquite, as well as the Cowboys' Texas Stadium, into Denton's $20.5 million football field, which opened in September.

Hence the separate locker rooms for each team's offensive and defensive squads; the three-story, $900,000 instant-replay scoreboard; the spacious two-level press box; and the glass wall separating the athletics staff offices, trophy hall and banquet room from the north end zone.

The 12,000-seat complex, which Denton voters approved by a 3-to-1 margin in a 2002 bond election, is one of 23 new or planned public school stadiums in the Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio metropolitan areas, according to a Houston Chronicle survey of the districts.

The combined price tag: $305.4 million.

Numbers such as those, coming at a time when school districts across the state are struggling with budgets to pay for teachers and books, have a handful of critics complaining of wildly misplaced priorities. In several districts, such as the Round Rock Independent School District north of Austin, stadium spending has prompted voter backlash.

But mostly, in a state where the best-funded high school football teams have 80-yard indoor practice facilities and sprawling weight rooms, the $13 million to $27 million stadium with all the trimmings has become almost commonplace, a concrete monument to hometown pride and the pre-eminence of Friday night football in Texas.

I was a 3-year varsity letterman in high school football in a hugely successful program in southern California. We won the league championship each of the three years I played and our high school team took the CIF Conference Title with an undefeated season during my Freshman Year in college. I add, only by way of background (and at the risk of immodesty), that I won the "Coaches Trophy" after my Junior Year season, as the team's most valuable player, and had an expectation that I would play college football for a major program (USC was my dream). That all came to a crushing end, however, with serious injuries to both knees my Senior Year -- a year in which I played injured. That was the bad news for me (and for my parents who were counting on me to earn an all-expenses paid athletic scholarship). The good news was that I was always a strong student-athlete, who earned good grades and, consequently, was able to gain admission to a prestigious, private liberal arts college.

Now I tell you this because I wanted to establish my credentials of having been a successful high school football player in order to say this: these ritzy, no-luxuries-spared, grandly-touted, "state-of-the-art" high school football stadiums are ridiculous, totally unnecessary, and multi-million dollar monoliths built to showcase the poor choices that adults are making for teenage athletes -- athletes who are students first, and who, first and foremost, need an education to be successful in life.

I, for one, would rather see classrooms, lecture halls, science labs, and state-of-the-art libraries constructed and supplied, rather than taxpayers pouring their hard-earned money into "separate locker rooms for each team's offensive and defensive squads." What unadulterated nonsense. In my time, the "luxury item" that told you you had landed on the varsity squad was a "drying room." That meant your practice uniform was dried out and not still dripping wet with sweat from the morning practice during end-of-summer, two-a-day practices! My God, "instant replay" on a $900,000 scoreboard! It's all profoundly insane! I played in an era when high school football players didn't even get water during practices!

In the mid-80s, I took a job promotion and relocated my family from southern California to the Dallas-Ft. Worth area -- what they call the "Metroplex." We first came to see the utter goofiness of Texas middle school and high school athletic programs when my older son began playing basketball in middle school. Much like in the movie "Hoosiers," the parents would form long car caravans and drive forever out in the middle of nowehere to reach some distant rural school for an "away game." More times than I care to recall, we'd suddenly come upon a small town with, at best, a gas station, a barber shop, and maybe a "Piggly Wiggly." And much too often, the local middle school would be either a tired, careworn brick building or have portable, trailer classrooms, but nonetheless a gorgeous gymnasium, and (I swear to you) with some even having numbered, individual, theatre-style seats! Oh, some had the fold-out, bench-style seats common in gymnasiums throughout the country; but here in Texas it is not outside the realm of possibility to find the school house falling down, while the gymnasium or football stadium looks like something found in a Hollywood movie set. Apart from the message being sent, my wife and I would look at each other dumbfounded and one or the other would invariably ask: "How does a town this size even get the money to build something like this?"

But, you know what? I'll bet if you could put this post under the noses of every adult in Texas, the majority would tell you I'm nuts. After all, this is the land where everything is over-size and BIG means best. And this is the land where I think they're convinced Friday night high school football was invented and where it's played better than in any other state.

I just think the priorities have gotten so out-of-whack. How about you?