As the football coach and athletic director of Escambia High School, in Pensacola, Fla., I read with great interest Rick Reilly's POINT AFTER about televising high school games (SI, Sept. 18). Mr. Reilly gave the plan an F, calling it a bad idea because he felt it would lead to the kind of behavior that has corrupted big-time college football. High school football, he wrote, isn't riddled with illegal recruiting, win-or-die coaching and big-money pressures, so let's not sully this clean sport with the evils of national television.
Well, I say give the plan an A. Mr. Reilly is correct when he says that high school football doesn't have many of the problems that plague the sport at the college and pro levels. And that's precisely why high schools should be given the opportunity to promote their programs. It's crucial that young athletes see positive, successful models. What better opportunity to do so than by viewing their peers nationwide?
The argument that broadcasting high school games will lead to the same type of corruption that has occurred in college and professional sports doesn't hold up. I know of high school coaches who have illegally recruited players and used ineligible players—without the influence of television exposure. If a coach is going to cheat, he will do so whether or not his team plays on television. And an honest coach isn't going to change into a rule breaker just because his team is on television. As someone who has participated in a nationally broadcast game, let me assure you that $1,200 does not corrupt. Nor, in Escambia's case, would $12,000 or $120,000.
In 1987, when Pine Forest, then the Florida state 5A champion, played at Escambia, our gate receipts were $6,047. This year, our game against Pine Forest, on Sept. 15, was nationally televised (Pine Forest won 17-11) and the gate receipts totaled $11,946. Revenue from parking, food concessions and the sale of programs, caps, pennants and such also increased. The added income from that game allowed the football program to get into the black for the first time in two seasons. Beyond that, the extra money will help improve the entire athletic program and will ultimately benefit all the students in this school.
Another of Mr. Reilly's criticisms was that high school sports are overcommercialized and TV will make it worse. I find the opposite to be true in our case. It has been my custom every year to have parachutists jump onto the playing field during the opening festivities of an early-season game. I told the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHSA) that I was also going to do this for our televised game. An NFSHSA official called and asked me not to have the parachutists or any other unusual activities, because the NFSHSA did not want to appear exploitive or commercial in any way.
As for extra TV timeouts, I was grateful for them. Because of the warm weather in the South, particularly during the early part of the football season, cramping can be a big problem for players. The extra timeouts—two TV timeouts per quarter are allowed—gave players the opportunity to replenish their bodies with the necessary fluids, and not one of my players cramped during the game.
There are other benefits from a televised game that have nothing to do with money. Being on national TV increases community cohesiveness and esprit de corps. Our community came together to spiff up the stadium and the school before our appearance on SportsChannel. For my players this was a chance to be seen by colleges several weeks before the recruiters were allowed by the NCAA to visit. For some schools this may be the incentive needed to clean up their act. A national TV appearance sets an ideal for players to emulate. It motivates them to strive for all the good qualities a nationally televised team embodies.
In my opinion the question isn't whether or not we should televise high school games but, rather, how closely the telecasts will be monitored. Who will be the watchdog to make sure there are no shady dealings taking place, to ensure that the youths are not exploited?
These are good, clean activities at a high school level, and what a pleasure it is to be able to share with America something that isn't scandal-ridden. Having survived and indeed thrived from our broadcast, I have nothing but praise for the concept of nationally televised high school sports.
Dwight H. Thomas lives in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., with his wife, Kathleen.