In a memorable episode of the "Friday Night Lights" television series, the principal — who’s also the football coach’s wife — argues that the Texas high school would have been better served if major donations went toward academic efforts instead of stadium enhancements.
The district superintendent replies, "But those people gave that money for the Jumbotron."
Sure enough, the fictional Dillon Panthers got their video screen, thanks to booster Buddy Garrity’s fundraising campaign.
In real-life Utah, a statewide investigation has cited problems stemming from a lack of oversight of donations to high school athletic programs. The bigger issue, beyond the accounting procedures, is how the arms race in college athletics has trickled down to the high school level.
That’s why I endorse the efforts of state educators to rein in boosters, monitor donations and, ideally, level the playing field. School administrators clearly need to take more responsibility in that regard.
At some point, everything got out of whack in college sports, and the phenomenon hasn’t stopped there. Maybe there’s no turning back, but there has to be some kind of containment before the high school experience is completely spoiled for students in schools that lack the backing of a Buddy Garrity or a Scott Cate.
A conversation this past spring with a retiring coach resonated with me. After more than 40 years in the teaching profession, having recently coached varsity basketball at Utah’s highest level, Lehi’s Craig Gladwell was leaving the game with a mixture of satisfaction and frustration.
"I don’t like the direction it’s going," he said. "It’s all about who can assemble the best talent, and then win. It’s high school, education-based athletics. It’s not college or pros."
It’s getting tougher to tell the difference. With a convergence of heavily funded programs, open enrollment and perceived recruitment of athletes, high school sports as we once knew them have become distorted. No matter how pure Cate’s intentions were with Cottonwood High’s football program as a benefactor and volunteer coach — and he deserved better treatment from Granite School District, in the end — there’s inevitable fallout when a kingdom is created and players gravitate to that school.
In Provo School District, anyone visiting the football facilities of the two high schools (Timpview and Provo) would conclude something is seriously skewed.
Cottonwood benefited tremendously from Cate’s involvement, just as Timpview’s highly successful football program was boosted by the support former coach Louis Wong enlisted. But there have to be some controls in place and some limits on influence before certain, select high school programs fully become like the colleges funded by Phil Knight and T. Boone Pickens.
Look, I understand it costs a lot of money to field teams these days. High school programs have grown beyond the era when I sold stationery to help pay for my baseball team’s new uniforms. That seems quaint, obviously. Nobody writes letters anymore, and modern fundraising is much more sophisticated than door-to-door sales.
There’s also a free-enterprise factor in play; I get that, too. Sponsors can support the schools of their choice. If increased scrutiny causes donors to hesitate about contributing, that would be an unintended consequence of educators’ efforts.
But these are public schools, and better supervision is necessary. If this means I’m backing the bureaucracy, fine.
It has to be said: High school sports in Utah are in danger of getting out of control. Unchecked donations are not the only issue, but certainly they’re part of the problem.
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