The Virtues and the Sins of Big-Time High-School Football

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In 2012, Sports Illustrated published a feature about an intriguing new phenomenon: a high-school football powerhouse that was not, strictly speaking, a high school. The Eastern Christian Honey Badgers, as the team was known, called Elkton, Maryland, their home. They lifted weights at a Y.M.C.A. and practiced on an unmarked field and took online classes through an organization called National Connections Academy—“an approved nontraditional course provider,” in the eyes of prospective colleges. The driving force behind the Honey Badgers was the father of the starting quarterback, naturally. He developed real estate in Delaware. The kid was something of a prodigy. But Delaware is no Texas, and, rather than uproot the family in search of better local competition, the father recruited a supporting cast from several surrounding states, with the idea that they could tour nationally—their first game was in South Carolina. He even adopted one of his son’s teammates, a dreadlocked defensive back and wide receiver whose luck was especially hard: a mother, a brother, and a grandfather all lost in short order. Eastern Christian leaned into the mission of football as a vessel for social uplift. “We’ll never put athletics before academics,” the Q.B.’s father said. “But we’ll probably come closer than most.” Anticipating inevitable skepticism, he added, “If we’re telling the truth, that we just want to help these kids, we’re virtuous. If we’re lying, we’re the most evil people in America. So it comes down to this: Do you believe us?”

Does it have to be one or the other? If the binary morality in that quote strikes you as willfully simple, consider that the Oscar-winning film “The Blind Side,” an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s best-seller about a wealthy white family who takes in a homeless Black offensive lineman and eases his path to Ole Miss, had come out just a few years earlier. Michael Oher, the lineman in question, was then starting for the Baltimore Ravens. “We’ve probably got 15 Blind Sides on this team,” the Honey Badgers’ head coach, himself a Black man, told S.I. That boast now reads differently, of course, in light of the lawsuit filed last week by Oher, alleging, among other things, that he was deprived of his proper familial share in the movie’s earnings—because he was never legally adopted, it turns out, but instead placed under a conservatorship, like Britney Spears. (The family maintains that he was included in a profit-sharing agreement.) Oher made a lot of money in his pro football career: tens of millions. The movie made even more. Yet, by all accounts, Oher was never comfortable with the story it told. It made him seem too helpless; its white-savior moral was too tidy. Whatever the legal fallout, the complexity of the real story can no longer be denied: a dream came true, and the once happy family is nonetheless estranged. Football provides the illusion of common cause, while it lasts. It is neither virtuous nor evil.

The quarterback prodigy on the Honey Badgers was named David Sills V. Some of you may wish to hear that Daddy’s money couldn’t overcome the long odds and that David is today no better off for his virtual high-school experience than the average twentysomething apprenticing in the family business. But others of you may be New York Giants fans, in which case you’ll recognize that name as belonging to a receiver near the bottom of the team’s depth chart. His route was roundabout—he no longer plays Q.B., after all—but he made it, and I daresay that his father regrets few if any of the millions that he admits to having spent on David and his teammates along the way. The Sills story is something of an inverse “Blind Side,” in fact, because the adopted brother’s path was not nearly as fortunate. His name was Jahmere Irvin—or Irvin-Sills, as it later became. He spent a couple of years at Mississippi State (one as a redshirt) and then transferred to the University of North Dakota. A year later, he downshifted to Division II Ferris State, in Michigan. Then his football record goes cold. A few months ago, he graduated from a school without a team, run by the Food Bank of Delaware. It was a trade program in warehousing and logistics. The name on his certificate of completion—Jahmere Irvin—reads as if the Honey Badgers had never existed.

“BS High,” an HBO Sports documentary that begins streaming this week, is about a scholastic football team that blew well past the line of putting athletics before academics. Its ostensible mission was the same as Eastern Christian’s: to assemble a roster of mostly underprivileged athletes, get them exposure on a national scale, and thereby provide them with college scholarships. Virtuous! It, too, lacked a field of its own or any kind of physical campus. Based in Columbus, Ohio, it somehow managed, through little more than Twitter outreach, to attract players from a radius spanning hundreds of miles and booked games in Washington, D.C., and Florida. “My philosophy in business is: Do what the people who have the money do, even if you don’t have the money,” the team’s founding head coach, Roy Johnson, says in the film. You could argue that one thing money will buy is a curriculum, but Johnson’s fake-it-till-you-make-it approach landed the team, known as Bishop Sycamore, on ESPN before they had addressed that particular deficiency—thus, “BS High.”

The opponent on ESPN was IMG Academy, from Bradenton, Florida—which is to your local high school as a Ducati is to a Schwinn. Tuition can approach ninety grand. Future pros and Olympians roam the five-hundred-acre grounds by the dozen. Bishop Sycamore, in contrast, emerged from the locker room looking like the Bad News Bears. Some of their jersey numbers did not match those on the roster scribbled for the broadcasters mere minutes before kickoff. Their ill-fitting helmets kept falling off. The matchup would have made for a great story if they had even kept it close. Alas, they were down 30–0 after the first quarter, and their ineptitude quickly brought scrutiny of a sort that insured they wouldn’t soon play again. The team turned out to have been evicted from a hotel for nonpayment. P.P.P. loans had been taken out in the players’ names without their knowledge. Some of them had already graduated from high schools elsewhere. Johnson had an outstanding warrant for domestic abuse. (He has since pleaded the charge down to “menacing.”) “This man told me all I got to do is play football to obtain my dream,” a dejected player tells the filmmakers after the rest of the season has been cancelled. “Coach Roy is evil.”

Maybe so—Johnson admits that he lied freely and would “hang out in the gray.” But the coach’s devilish provocations are what linger in the mind long after the shock of the scam’s specifics fades. “Bishop Sycamore is just a name,” he says, unapologetic. “The concept is not going anywhere.” Exposure, in other words, is a currency to rival cash, a levelling device in the brutal lottery of college athletics—all the more so now that a student can profit from his name, image, and likeness without jeopardizing eligibility. ESPN televises high-school football games not because the teams have fan bases that scale. (Who other than an implicated parent would root for IMG? It’s like rooting for the McDonald’s All-Americans.) It does so because there are future Nittany Lions and Sooners and Fighting Irishmen among their ranks, and those teams have as many fans as the pros. Also, spotting young talent on the cusp of stardom is thrilling and awakens the inner scout, the wannabe G.M., in many of us. Johnson, who says that he grew up wanting to be just that, a G.M., succeeded in finding his team the exposure he promised, in the form of a national television audience not only on ESPN but now on HBO. If they had been better football players, they would be answering calls from the likes of Nick Saban in addition to putting up with all the online trolling. (It’s worth noting that Johnson’s skills in developing latent football aptitude are suspect: the team cribbed some of its plays from the video game Madden NFL.)

The uncomfortable truth is that a sideline full of players accepted Bishop Sycamore’s invitation because their options, such as they’d conceived them, were limited. And the humiliating experience of getting trounced while playing for a fake school doesn’t appear to have done much to disillusion them in the broader sense. The obligatory where-are-they-now montage at the end of “BS High” shows us one player after another “still chasing his dream of playing in the N.F.L.” or “waiting for his next football opportunity.” These are twenty-year-old men. College is expensive, but so is spending years of your prime hoping that football will make it less so. That all this is happening—indeed, ramping up—at a moment when the general public’s faith in the value of a college education is declining only underscores the tragic circularity of the logic. “It’s not about education,” as Johnson says. “It’s about football.” ♦


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