The Pigskin Preposterous

We call it ... football.

“As soon as I adopt that quitting attitude, I’ll have it for the rest of my life.”

Daijail Arthur

Talk about burying the lede.

Okay, time out: This probably means more to me than it does to you. A’ight?

Jeré Longman reports, for the New York Times:

The Louisiana high school football playoffs opened last Friday, but it hardly felt encouraging as the East Iberville Tigers boarded a bus for a five-hour ride north toward certain defeat. The team was 0-10 for a second consecutive season, so overmatched that four players decided not to make the trip.

This left a squad of 15 suited up for the Tigers’ Class 1A playoff opener here, including a freshman quarterback, two eighth-graders — a safety and a lineman — and a seventh-grade receiver.

The inclusion of winless teams in the playoffs is an unintended consequence of a much-debated action that Louisiana’s principals took before the 2013 season to split public and private schools into separate playoff tournaments for football.

Each state is left to make its own bylaws. In a number of states, the football playoffs have expanded for several reasons: tension between public and private schools over recruiting and scholarships, inclusivity and aligning football with the postseason tournaments in other sports.

One result is that teams with losing records routinely enter the playoffs because there are not enough competitive teams to go around. A quick survey found winless teams in the 2014 postseason from Texas, New Jersey, Utah, South Dakota and Missouri. Virginia had two playoff teams with 1-9 records.

There is so much wrong in those paragraphs that it is hard to know where to begin. This is not necessarily a result of Longman’s reporting; rather, the buried lede speaks more of our society. To that end, we might make snide remarks about market demand, but that would only further obscure what really is a very, very important issue.

Let us return to the second paragraph:

This left a squad of 15 suited up for the Tigers’ Class 1A playoff opener here, including a freshman quarterback, two eighth-graders — a safety and a lineman — and a seventh-grade receiver.

Please tell me this paragraph is a joke.

We can say what we want about sportsmanship; the four players who didn’t make the trip should not be on the squad at all if the reason really is that they simply gave over to the prospect of yet another defeat.

Even as such, and recognizing that Class 1A is composed of the smallest schools in Louisiana, what the hell is a seventh-grader doing playing football with high school seniors? At a time when professional football is at least pretending concern about head trauma and other injuries, and parents are alarmed to find out that signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy are showing up before players even reach college, how can we send seventh-grade students out to play ball with high school seniors?

These smaller classes do not produce large numbers of professional prospects, but there are some. And there are quarterbacks and receivers and running backs, linebackers and defensive backs, who really can stand out among their peers. And let us be clear: No receiver actually enjoys the crossing routes that put linebackers through his spine. Such plays are great offense if you do it right, but doing it right simply means your receivers will fall apart later rather than sooner; the cumulative damage of such crushing blows inevitably takes its toll.

But at the same time, look at where all of this is going on. Louisiana? Texas? Those are football powerhouses from the ground up. The game is very nearly a religion in these places.

Certes, there are some inevitable considerations about who gets to the playoffs. South Dakota? Utah? New Jersey? Any state will produce fine football players who eventually climb to the NFL, but open playoffs is a concept easier understood in terms of geographically small or sparsely populated states.

But in places like Texas and Louisiana, this is not the case. Splitting public and private schools into separate tournaments makes no sense outside the communities where this is actually happening. Up in my corner of the country, two private schools made the playoffs, and both won their first round games. We don’t expect either will make the finals, but, you know, go Lions, beat the Cougars, and all that.

But if someone said, “Separate the tournaments”, we would wonder why. To the other, those two private schools in the tournament are Class 4A, composed of the state’s largest schools. If we started segregating the tournaments, our small-school brackets would implode. Apparently, the situation in Louisiana is different.

Nonetheless, the question remains: What about high school football is so damned important that a state should go out of its way to actually elevate the dangers these young players face on the field?

And more than the fact that football-crazy states have somehow managed to muck up their high school football tournaments, the important story really does seem to be the potential for increased danger to the players. Maybe this is a six-foot seventh-grader weighing in at around one-ninety, who runs a four-five forty. But if that was the case, one might imagine we would hear about him, anyway.

Safety issues are not absent from everyone’s considerations. Jim Tenopir, chief operating officer of the National Federation of State High School Associations spoke of increased participation, but also noted that the less-successful teams might prefer an end to the season: “It’s just another exposure for another bad loss or injury.” And one school, Gueydan High, actually decided to skip the playoffs altogether; after an 0-10 season, it was hard to find a reason to put the kids at risk just to get blown out again.

But East Iberville Coach John Young said he never considered keeping his team home.

The money that East Iberville would receive for mileage and gate receipts — an estimated $2,000 — was not a motivation for the long playoff journey to Logansport High School, Young said. Simply put, he said, the Tigers needed all the games they could get.

Young is trying to build a football tradition at a school that has only 35 boys in grades 9 through 12, lacks a blocking sled, uses a wood shop class for a weight room and does not field enough players for full scrimmages or spring practice ....

.... Kevin Magee, the coach at Logansport High School, said that Young and East Iberville were left in a complicated position regarding the playoffs. “He’s trying to build a program,” Magee said. “What message are you sending your kids if you say, ‘No, we don’t want to’?”

“You want to give them every experience possible,” Magee said. At the same time, he added, “You’ve got to win to be able to make the postseason. That’s life.”

It’s all confusing enough in general, but for those who grew up in a football heritage the situation is nothing short of insanity.

East Iberville’s game went about as one might expect:

Quickly, predictably, things began to go wrong. By halftime, East Iberville trailed, 35-0. Seeking to minimize injury and avoid humiliation for his young team, Young asked that the third quarter be reduced to six minutes from 12, and the fourth quarter to four minutes.

Still, by the final whistle, East Iberville was left with a minimum 11 players, including LeeAndre Brown, a seventh-grade receiver pressed into duty on the offensive line.

“I felt old,” said Brown, 13.

Then again, in some places football is just that important.

____________________

Longman, Jeré. “Your School Lost Every Game? Hey, Better Luck in the Postseason”. The New York Times. 19 November 2014.

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