We live in a culture that demands all things be rated and ranked, especially our sports teams. At the end of the season, somebody has to earn the right to raise one of those garish foam fingers and shout, "We're Number One." That seems to count for a lot.
If you doubt this, consider the latest news from college football. It was recently announced that — at long last — a group of college presidents had approved a college football playoff system. Starting in 2014, there will be an undisputed champion of college football every year. This brings the certainty and order that we crave as fans. It also will bring untold riches to the 11 big-time college football conferences (and Notre Dame) that brokered the agreement. If this economic purpose was the least bit in doubt, the college presidents clarified the issue by announcing the championship game would be awarded each year to the city that is the highest bidder.
The urge to crown a national champion is not limited to the college ranks. It's present at every level of sports these days, even youth sports. If your child is playing in an organized league, chances are that a team somewhere is No. 1 or arguing for a game to settle the issue.
Consider high school football. There is no national high school football championship — not yet anyway. The National Federation of State High School Associations, the powerful organization that governs interscholastic sports in 50 states, is solidly against the idea.
Yet a lot of coaches, athletic directors, parents and (to be fair) players disagree. Almost every year there's a renewed effort to force the hand of the NFHS. In 2011, the nation's two top teams were Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., and Trinity from Louisville, Ky. How did we know these two — among the 14,279 that play high school football — were the best? Many national high school football polls and rankings (operated by for-profit companies) told us so. And really, who am I to argue with the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Football Rankings, presented by the Army National Guard? Both teams completed their seasons with unblemished records. Trinity had a winning streak of 25 games; Don Bosco's was on a roll of 46 straight wins.
The athletic director of Don Bosco and the president of Trinity agreed to a title game. Their planning got as far as settling on a place for the game: Yankee Stadium.
The Don Bosco AD, Brian McAleer, told the Louisville Courier Journal: "I think it would have been a good opportunity for the kids. It's a shame we weren't allowed to do it."
The NFHS had a different view. "Any type of national competition would detract from the importance of state high school championships and enhance the emphasis on elite athletes and teams," the organization's executive director and president wrote in 2011. In other words, they might be terrific football players, but they're just kids.
The pressure to turn high school football into something akin to the National Football League is not new, of course. In the 1980s, the author Buzz Bissinger exposed the issue in his book "Friday Night Lights," the story of talented and tormented high school players in Odessa, Texas. The book became a movie and later a TV show, all, to a greater or lesser degree, about playing high school football in a town that took the sport too seriously for its own good.
If anything, our embrace of high school sports only has become more problematic, especially for players at the top of the heap. ESPN now televises about 15 high school football and basketball games annually on national TV. Most are matchups that would never have occurred if not for the sports network and the production company that acts as impresario.
Often, the games feature top-rated teams from football hotbeds like Florida and South Carolina. Other times, the games have celebrity star power. In 2009, ESPN matched Oaks Christian High School in Southern California and Skyline High School in Seattle — a matchup of West Coast powers. The Oaks Christian quarterback was Nick Montana, son of the NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana. Nick's teammates included Trey Smith, son of actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, and Trevor Gretzky, whose dad Wayne is one of the greats of professional hockey.
Maybe high school athletes are ready for that sort of national acclaim and scrutiny. Maybe. How about elementary school students? There are approximately 285,000 kids playing Pop Warner football, making it the biggest youth program in the sport. Each year, the best of the best travel to Walt Disney World to smash helmets in the Pop Warner Super Bowl at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex. In 2010, the title game between the Overtown Rattlers (Florida) and the Detroit Dolphins (Michigan) was televised on ESPN2. That followed the national championship game of the Junior PeeWee League for players 8, 9 and 10 years old.
Who's No. 1? Sometimes, he's a third grader.
Mark Hyman, a Baltimore resident, is the author of "The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today's Families." He teaches in the sports management program at George Washington University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.