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It's time to blow the whistle on unregulated broadcasts

The Baltimore Sun

The Miami Northwestern Bulls answered a ton of questions Saturday night in an early-season nationally televised high school football showdown against Southlake Carroll of suburban Dallas.

The Bulls, who held on to win a 29-21 thriller, overcame their best receiver suffering a bruised heel, a hostile crowd of more than 31,000 and the hype of a meeting between the country's presumed two best teams to end Carroll's 49-game winning streak.

While the game's outcome supposedly answered whatever questions might have existed about who is the nation's No. 1 high school football team, there's still one question left to be answered, and it's a big one.

Why, exactly, was this game played in the first place?

More to the point, was there any legitimate reason for athletes from a Miami-Northwestern school that, according to USA Today, gets an "F" academic rating from the state of Florida, to miss a day and a half of class to travel more than 1,000 miles to play a game that, at the end of the season, means absolutely nothing?

How parents and administrators answer similarly philosophically loaded, but nonetheless valid, queries when they arise in their areas will say a lot about the future of high school athletics.

Obviously, Carroll and Northwestern, ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in last week's USA Today high school ratings, were brought together by television. The game, brokered by Paragon Marketing Group, an Illinois-based promoter, aired on ESPNU, which will broadcast a series of weekly high school games through the end of October.

Around the country, high school athletics are a potential boon for television, and it's not hard to understand why. The increasing interest in college recruiting, fueled by the Internet, brings a level of notice to high school athletes, which makes them and their games attractive to network executives. And the games can be aired and re-aired for little or nothing in production costs.

Better yet for promoters and telecasters, because there are so many high schools and little centralized control among them, unlike college conferences and the NFL, rights fees are kept low.

Locally, Comcast's CN8 has begun to air a weekly package of live and taped football games between teams from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, while Texas high school football is a staple of regional sports channels in the Southwest.

For the schools themselves, the opportunity to showcase their wares to a local, regional or national audience is key, especially this day and age, with increasing demands from parents to put their children in positions to be discovered.

And that's precisely why someone has to step in and provide some level of supervision over this process before it gets out of hand and we're left with the kind of free-for-all mess that college football has become, where schools leave one long-standing arrangement with a conference to jump to the next without any thought for the people and commitments left behind.

In a perfect world, the 50 state high school athletic organizations, and the one representing the District of Columbia, would come together to form a set of regulations to govern who gets on television and how often they appear.

That's not a world we're likely to see anytime soon, so the alternative might have to be that the U.S. Department of Education takes a role in the process, even if it's only as a watchdog role.

And before the moaning about the intrusion of the Feds begins, let's not forget that, had it not been for President Theodore Roosevelt's concern over how intercollegiate athletics were being conducted more than 100 years ago, we might not have the NCAA today.

That might not be a great selling point for a high school version of the NCAA, but the bottom line is that keeping our high schools as free from athletic scandal as possible is too important a task to leave to people on the local and state levels who are too involved to see the big picture.

Parenthetically, if you don't think the opportunity to get a high school team on national television isn't a breeding ground for scandal, just ask yourself what adults will do just to get their talented kids recognition. Then, throw in the narcissism that television feeds on, and you've got a perfect recipe for a mess.

Any regulation should limit a school to a single nationally televised appearance every two years and one local or regional regular-season appearance per year. Postseason telecasts should be limited to the semifinal round or later, so as to make those appearances accessible for all schools, and any rights fees that are derived from the telecast should go to the county or conference and then be redistributed among all the schools.

The governing body should insist that schools stay within their own time zone for televised games. There's nothing inherently wrong with kids traveling to play quality opposition. But that opposition ought to be available in relatively contiguous areas, and high school students shouldn't be shipped cross-country to feed television's gaping maw.

And finally, while television can air a game whenever it wants, the actual starting time, regardless of the sport, should never be after 7 p.m. local time, even on weekends, because kids don't get into high school athletics to provide television programming.

That's what college is for.

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