The Difference Between “Obscure” and “Why?!?”

As I sat eating my breakfast at a grocery store café this morning, I noticed on a couple of the TV screens the “UnderArmour All America Game Announcement Show.” It was showing game clips and player profiles of gridiron players. It’s a safe bet they weren’t college players; the major college season doesn’t end until this weekend. No, this was about allegedly the best high school football players. I was gobsmacked.

I understand the appeal of playing team sports such as basketball, baseball, hockey, football, gridiron, or volleyball. I understand the appeal of having a favorite professional team in these sports, even if you’ve never played yourself, particularly at the major league levels. There’s a certain artistry in a well executed give-and-go, corner kick, hit-and-run, and so forth, that you don’t have to have played to appreciate. Less so at the minor league levels, but it can still be a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours at a local ballpark, particularly with friends.

College sports can have a similar appeal; our best seventy-five gridiron players can beat your best seventy-five gridiron players, because we have the best coaches, or we can recruit the fastest, most skilled “students,” or whatever. College sports events can be minor eruptions of mass hysteria; my homesickness about three weeks into my freshman year of college, two thousand miles from home, was cured by the first home game weekend. Even if you never went to these schools, it’s easy to align yourself with your state school, or a school with a tradition you admire, or a school that has recently built a great &sport. program from nothing without ending up on NCAA probation, or some other school. It’s even easy to root for schools whose players aren’t likely to turn pro after they graduate or leave school. These aren’t development leagues for the professional leagues; they’re causes for school spirit and collective enthusiasm. (OK, some of them resemble development programs for the pros, but we’ll discuss UK men’s basketball another time….)

High school sports are much more parochial. People have heard of De La Salle in northern California, or De Matha in the DC suburbs, or Moeller in Cincinnati, and most of us have seen or read Friday Night Lights, but people don’t really follow these teams if they don’t live in that region. They’re more likely to be aware of players and overall records than of individual game results. If De Le Salle wins a game, it’s not news. If they lose a game, spoiling their chance at another unbeaten season, or when they achieve yet another unbeaten season, it’s news. More, though, people care about the players who will be joining their favorite college team, or its rivals. This is roughly akin to NBA fans who follow Kentucky men’s basketball to see who their favorite pro team might draft, except that Kentucky has lots of people who follow the team for its own sake.

The problem with following individual high school players is this: for every Kobe Bryant or Lebron James, there’s a Kwame Brown or Andray Blatche, a highly rated prospect who was unable to keep up at the next level or skip a level. The history of basketball is littered with stories about great New York City players, the legends of the playgrounds, who didn’t make it at the next level. It’s not even about physical skills; sometimes life skills are missing; sometimes people who were big fish in medium-sized ponds do poorly as medium-sized fish in even larger ponds. Sometimes fame kills the work ethic or enables debilitating drug use. (Len Bias, anyone? He died of a cocaine overdose shortly after being drafted highly by a good team.) It’s hard enough predicting which college players will be good professional athletes; trying to evaluate high school talent for good college prospects is even tougher.

Which leads me to, national high school all-star events.

Who cares what happens when you take one hundred good gridion players or thirty good basketball players and divide them into two teams? There’s no time for them to become a team, to learn offensive systems or defensive schemes. Will you hear of some of those players in their first year of college competition? Probably. Some may succeed. Some may disappoint. Some may get injured as their bodies keep growing a little. Some may be unable to handle the academics, which we might or might not hear about.

Meanwhile, the next one hundred gridiron prospects or the next thirty basketball prospects may have as many successes as the top clique, both at the college level and at any eventual professional level. Some will receive better coaching in college and will improve more. Some were great players whose talents were hidden due to small venues or poor competition. Recruiters try to account for those factors, but it can’t be easy.

You know who benefits from these high school all star games? Not the players; they’ve already been recruited. Maybe their families a little, if they can afford to go to Orlando or San Antonio or wherever. Mostly, though, it’s the sponsors. I wasn’t watching the “2016 Orlando All America Game Selection Show”; it was the “Under Armour All America Game Selection Show” (emphasis added). I don’t care about the all star gridiron game that the US Army sponsors, but I know the Army sponsors it, because more than a few college players are shown in clips from that game early in their college careers.

So, I didn’t feel like I was watching the discovery and unveiling of some future pro stars. I felt like I was watching an UnderArmour commercial.

Why?!?

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