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Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013: Why Christine Brennan's column can be ignored

   Leading off today: There were several other things that I wanted/needed/hoped to do on this beautiful summer day, but the train went off the tracks less than a two minutes into reading this morning's column by Christine Brennan of USA Today.

   For the uninformed, Brennan lives in the rarified air of sportswriters or TV commentators with a powerful national platform, courtesy of Gannett's national newspaper. She's been in the business long enough to write with authority on many topics. Unfortunately, she's also been in the business long enough to have an unfortunate episode or two associated with her name and acting as a drag -- albeit a minor one -- on her credibility. I'll come back to that momentarily.

   Anyway, Brennan's latest column expressed disdain for televised high school football, regarding it as an unnecessary extravagance and potentially damaging to the psyche of young athletes. To put her remarks in context, ESPN has announced another season-long schedule of games for 2013, numerous regional networks have been carrying games for several years and FOX Sports has also hopped aboard in the past couple of years with a slate of games sometimes pairing distant opponents.

   "This bizarre need to nationally televise things that are best kept local inevitably takes a toll on the last people we'd hope it would," she writes. "By putting hundreds of very young football players on national TV each year, we create winners, of course, which can be wonderful, perhaps even life-altering, for the lucky kid who makes the big play.

   "But it also means we create losers on a national stage. We're not talking about Bill Buckner or Scott Norwood. When they made their mistakes, they were not only adults, they were professional athletes."

   Her conclusion is that there's enough passion for the product and/or indifference to the perceived woes brought on by televised high school football that it's impossible to kill the beast now.

   "We're clearly not troubled enough as a society to stop this, so on it goes," she writes. "What's the over-under on how long it will take the arms race between ESPN and Fox to give us a national high school football playoff? Ten years? Twenty?

   "If TV wants it, it will happen. As we've seen."

   She may have a valid point there, though I would counter by noting that college football has been one of America's most popular spectator sports since World War II and a staple of television since the landmark Supreme Court ruling nearly 30 years ago ended the NCAA's stranglehold on the negotiation of broadcast contracts on behalf of schools.

   And here we are still a full season away from something even remotely resembling a major-college playoff tournament and perhaps a decade or more away from a genuine eight- or 16-team postseason bracket. If it's taken approximately 125 colleges roughly a century to fashion a made-for-TV national playoff (BTW, it's indisputable that TV is the engine here), then we might easily be looking at another 40 years before high school football takes the plunge. The way ESPN's awkward adventure with a national basketball tournament has stumbled along these past five years, 50 or 60 years might be more realistic.

   That, though, is a minor quibble with what Brennan wrote. Truth be told, I also have had some reservations over the years about high school football games that are often made almost solely for TV. For the sake of brevity, I'll simply point out that flying 750 or 1,500 miles to a game is disruptive even when the contest is scheduled for the weekend. There's classroom time lost, resources spent on the logistics of moving people and equipment and almost certainly a disruption in the preparations for subsequent games; with rare exceptions, staying within even 150 miles of home should be the preferred option.

   But any similarities between myself and Brennan end with this disclaimer:

   Full disclosure: I am a former employee of a Gannett wholly-owned subsidiary (as I tell people, I had 18 wonderful years at the Democrat and Chronicle ... unfortunately I worked there for 24) and I am currently employed by FOXSports.com, owned by the same conglomerate that last week launched the FOX Sports 1 TV network.

   See, it's really not all that hard to lay your cards on the table and allow the reader to judge for himself whether what I write might be influenced by who puts bread on my table or by an old allegiance. It's why I'll make passing references to Aquinas' results in blogs during the football and basketball seasons but also note that I'm a graduate of that school if I'm writing about an issue related to the school.

   Brennan, though, managed to take shots at the corrupting influence of ESPN and FOX on high school football without acknowledging even in passing the effect that her newspaper has had in the promotion of high school sports and glorification of certain elite scholastic athletes.

   Before USA Today came along in the early 1980s, there was no easy access to weekly regional and national

  
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football rankings. Yes, there were undertakings along those lines, but they were disseminated in almost random fashion; you never saw the East Beast weekly rankings compiled by a Philadelphia newspaper except in the rare instance when one of your local teams was ranked. (Or if you subscribed to the New York State Sportswriters Association newsletter.)

   It was USA Today that brought us the first readily accessible regional and national rankings each week as well as feature stories throughout the season and then a full-color blowout presentation of the All-USA Today team.

   I've long since forgotten the name of the player, but a legendary story in sports information directors circles noted how a University of Pittsburgh freshman circa 1985 once listed USA Today as his hometown newspaper because his name had appeared in print there so many times while he was in high school.

   For Brennan to announce that there is a problem and then all but drop responsibility for it at the feet of television networks calls into question either her judgment or her motive.

   Of course, that's nothing new. You see, it happened a long time ago, but Brennan has an episode at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City on her resume. It was there that controversy -- "Skategate," as it came to be known -- erupted as a French judge acknowledged tanking her ballot in favor of the Russian entry under alleged pressure from her country's skating federation.

   The subsequent disclose of funny business resulted in Canada's Jamie Sale and David Pelletier being elevated to unprecedented co-gold medalist status with the Russians.

   Brennan was there, reporting extensively for her print and television bosses on the drama. What a good number of people didn't know, though, was that one of her agents was also representing Sale and Pelletier at the time. If the ramifications of such an arrangement are not obvious, they should be.

   Brennan noted that she made her bosses aware of that situation, and there was a disclaimer of sorts in one of her USA Today stories in the aftermath of a crazy weekend of developments in the judging scandal. Brennan's defense at a subsequent APSE session was dubious at best -- she hadn't expected to cover the pairs competition extensively because it was a relatively minor event.

   Firstly, pairs skating escaped junior-varsity status one electrifying evening at the 1973 World Championships when the Soviet Union's Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev completed their gold-medal routine flawlessly after their music stopped abruptly midway through their program. And then Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean brought couples routines to a whole different level at Sarajevo in 1984 in the ice dancing event, highly similar to figure skating.

   Secondly, Olympic television schedules have been constructed for as long as anyone under the age of 40 can remember in such a way so as to assure that TV networks show all the skating competitions in prime time (i.e., biggest possible audience) and when little else is going on; to characterize the pairs competition as relatively minor stretches credibility.

   That leaves Brennan in the awkward position of wanting to have the best of both worlds. On the one hand, she appears to argue that there is no conclusion to be drawn about the popularity of skating based on TV placement and coverage. On the other hand, she demonizes TV networks for soaring interest in high school football that they did not necessarily create.

   She didn't have the good journalistic instincts to steer clear of covering skating at Salt Lake City in 2002 and she omitted some highly relevant facts today. Surely, the Eastern German and Czech judges wouldn't be the only ones giving the USA rep low marks today.


  
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