Indeed, I was pleased to find that the January 2, 2012 issue featured a (typically) lengthy story about high school football by Ben McGrath entitled “The Jersey Game" (unfortunately, online access is subscriber only).
What I expected was a portrait of the way in which high school football has evolved into a form of spectacle in which the labour of teenagers supplies entertainment and profit to unscrupulous adults. There is evidence of that in McGrath’s piece--plenty, in fact. What the article lacks is any sort of sustained critique or judgment of the subjects it depicts. McGrath may not see that as his job, but I disagree.
In the article McGrath recounts the recent season of the Don Bosco Preparatory School football team in Ramsey, New Jersey, one of the U.S.’s dominant high school football programs over the past decade. He introduces us to many of the team’s prominent players, as well as administrators, coaches, and parents who are involved with the operation of the program. The article moves between contextualization and history and a narrative of the 2011 season, including fraught exhibition games organized against some of the nation’s strongest teams
This is a story of a team of boys who are coached as if they are men, and who achieve the commensurate results. Don Bosco is so dominant in its games that opponents aspire merely to defer the implementation of the mercy rule. Emblematic of the Don Bosco approach to training is “the hill.” McGrath writes:
The field on the top of the hill is still ringed by trees, and its seclusion ranks surprisingly high among the factors commonly cited to explain the Ironmen’s uncommon success. The coaches say things like “They don’t have the hill,” as a rallying cry. What they mean is that the Ironmen’s rivals don’t have a place where you can yell with impunity, and where no one looks askance when linemen begin to bleed from the bridges of their noses. The code of football operates with monopoly protection up there. As [head coach] Greg Toal once put it to me, “We’re away from civilization, the way I like it.
Although McGrath hints at some reservations he may have with this prematurely adult world, his piece ultimately reads as a celebration of what Coach Toal--described as “‘very nice’” by one of the players’ mothers (despite the verbal punishment he customarily doles out to his charges--has accomplished: a return to an era where “something like eighty per cent of school principals [are] former football coaches.” In other words, a society in which football sets the moral tone.
What McGrath leaves out of this narrative is the cost of the culture that Toal and the administrators at Don Bosco have created. His piece can be read as a case study into the way that the norms of college athletics have come to permeate high schools. In fact, given the current structure of college sport, it is really a portrait of how high school, like college sports, have been professionalized.
McGrath characterizes these developments in largely favourable terms. Don Bosco provides opportunities for inner city kids, who can at the very least hope to “‘meet a kid at Don Bosco that becomes a lawyer or something, and become his longtime friend in life,” and, ideally, leverage their athletic abilities into an education and a professional career.
Yet, things are not so simple. McGrath gestures to this, writing of the team’s star player, a sophomore named Jabrill Peppers, “Without thinking it through, perhaps, he had taken in recent weeks to embracing the nickname Boobie, as in Boobie Miles, the charismatic black running back who is nonetheless the tragic figure of ‘Friday Night Lights’: an All-American taken from a broken family who injures his knee and loses his future.” Indeed, this is an opportunity, for Peppers as for Miles, fraught with risk. Worse, it is opportunity predicated on violence to the other and to the self.
Former New York Giant’s quarterback Phil Simms, whose son played for the team, says of Don Bosco practices “‘They work harder than the pros. That’s not even in question.’” McGrath admits of the practices that they “seemed to [him] like a recipe for concussions.” And concussions, even of the "minor" variety, according to research published in Sports Illustrated, are nearly certain to have devastating effects.
What is perhaps most disturbing about this violence is that it is now being promoted by individuals such as Ken Halloy, president of Halloy Boy Sports Marketing and “a longtime college-football enthusiast and fan-magazine publisher,” as a form of spectacle broadcast on networks such as ESPN.
McGrath outlines how Halloy is “monetizing” (McGrath’s own euphemism) high school football by putting together marquee match-ups of highly ranked teams from different states. In effect, Halloy and the coaches he works with ensure that the teenagers under their supervision will punish each other’s bodies, not simply in a desperate search for opportunity, but for the entertainment of adults.
It is difficult to see where fun fits in this equation. But then, this is training for real life. And, fun is not something kids from blue collar and inner city New Jersey should grow up to expect much of.
As a final note, I want to reference the most pervasive mainstream sports story of the fast few months: the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. It is difficult to see what happened at Penn State as anything other than the product of a college athletic system that privileges winning, and the bottom line winning bolsters, above all else. Coaches and administrators in Happy Valley seemingly failed to intervene because they were loathe to disrupt a successful formula, no matter the cost. This is the culture that has filtered down to high school programs such as Don Bosco and so it is hardly a surprise that Coach Toal is considered to be a candidate for the Fordham University job; it will require little adjustment for him to move from one level to the other.
There is little doubt that the broader context for this discussion is a social structure that cannot simply be transformed by the actions of high school administrators and teacher--it cuts to the very core of neoliberal capitalism in America. Yet, those figures who have devoted their lives to nurturing the young should still ask themselves the question that McGrath seems unwilling to pose: is the only kind of abuse worth getting worked up about sexual?