Watching events from this perspective will require change in focus


IT HAS BEEN said that confession is good for the soul, so here's a little spirit cleansing right off the bat as we begin a new approach to high school sports with this column, running three times a week in this space.

Here it goes: I have no idea what I'm doing.

Um, perhaps a little rephrasing is in order. I've been a sportswriter here for 15 years, with a pretty varied coverage slate, from men's and women's basketball to the Orioles to the media to the Redskins to the NBA and WNBA, so I have a decent feel for what's happening among the adults who play the games.

Where I'm more than a little behind the curve is with the kids themselves. So much has changed in the more than two decades since I got my high school diploma from dear old Northern High in Calvert County.

(And while we're taking in the sweet air of full disclosure, here's a breath: The closest I got to the playing field was my freshman year when I was the manager of the JV basketball team at Northern. I had no jumper, no dribbling skills and no quickness, but the Patriots have never worn cleaner jerseys, before or since.)

The players in every sport are bigger, faster, stronger, smarter and capable of so much more than kids in my day. There were plenty of talented players in our league, the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference, but none so good that you could have imagined any of them going straight to the professional ranks without stopping first at college.

Now, it happens all the time in basketball, and it would seem that the first attempted jump from the preps to the NFL needs only the right combination of overzealous attorney, unscrupulous agent and overreaching parent to make it happen.

Toward that end, it appears from the outside that the games aren't as innocent as they used to be, either. Back at Northern, there was just one leather-lunged parent yelling at the coach or official. Today, it seems we're lucky if parents or boosters limit their involvement to just screaming.

In today's high school marketplace, the push of trying to line up a college scholarship or a professional opportunity has brought out the worst in some parents.

Their kids are routinely transferred from district to district in search of the best athletic opportunity, or are held back, in some cases, to get bigger and stronger, as well as driven all over creation from schools to club and Amateur Athletic Union teams.

And the schools don't often help. They become pawns of commercialism, through shoe companies, athletic apparel providers, soft drink makers and the like, exposing the kids to the seamier side of athletics before their time.

In the worst-case scenario, all that competition leads to a kind of athletics arms race on the order of what happens in Texas, where The Dallas Morning News reported last week that the school districts in the Dallas area spent nearly $180 million over a four-year span on football stadium construction, which would be almost double what the state of Maryland spent to build Comcast Center in College Park.

In that vein, it's fair to ask if the kids are having fun in the midst of it all, because, in the end, that's what it all ought to be about, fun. Most of the kids who play high school sports will never know what it's like to draw a paycheck or even a college scholarship from athletics, but they'll learn lessons about themselves and others that will last a lifetime.

I couldn't play basketball, but listening to Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind & Fire on the team bus through a tape recorder going from northern Calvert County to St. Mary's and Charles counties was one of the great experiences of my life. I made friends that I still have today.

(And, by the way, to anyone under 18 asking who or what Earth Wind & Fire or Stevie Wonder are, please go ask your parents, then go buy their discs.)

So, what are we going to do here? We'll take an occasionally jaundiced, but usually hopeful, look at players and coaches and the games, and explore a few issues here and there. Simple as that.

Here's one rock solid, take-it-to-the-bank pledge about what you won't see in this space: Not once will there be a second guess about the strategy of a coach in a game. The outcome of any particular contest, frankly, matters too little in the grand scheme.

More importantly, coaches, in all sports, get paid far too little, devote too much time and take too much grief from parents, boosters and administrators to get called out in the pages of a major metropolitan daily newspaper for failing to call a bunt in the fifth inning of a game.

And here's another guarantee: This won't be a column exclusive to football, basketball and baseball. There are plenty of other sports, played by boys and girls, that deserve a look, from North Harford to Francis Scott Key to Southern, and many places in between.

So, maybe I do know what I'm doing: hoping every kid who plays the game has the chance to mix in some fun along with the wins and losses, and that I get to tell you about it.

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