We live in a culture that demands all things be rated and ranked, especially our sports teams. At the end of the season, somebody has to earn the right to raise one of those garish foam fingers and shout, "We're Number One." That seems to count for a lot.
If you doubt this, consider the latest news from college football. It was recently announced that — at long last — a group of college presidents had approved a college football playoff system. Starting in 2014, there will be an undisputed champion of college football every year. This brings the certainty and order that we crave as fans. It also will bring untold riches to the 11 big-time college football conferences (and Notre Dame) that brokered the agreement. If this economic purpose was the least bit in doubt, the college presidents clarified the issue by announcing the championship game would be awarded each year to the city that is the highest bidder.
The urge to crown a national champion is not limited to the college ranks. It's present at every level of sports these days, even youth sports. If your child is playing in an organized league, chances are that a team somewhere is No. 1 or arguing for a game to settle the issue.
Consider high school football. There is no national high school football championship — not yet anyway. The
Yet a lot of coaches, athletic directors, parents and (to be fair) players disagree. Almost every year there's a renewed effort to force the hand of the NFHS. In 2011, the nation's two top teams were Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J., and Trinity from Louisville, Ky. How did we know these two — among the 14,279 that play high school football — were the best? Many national high school football polls and rankings (operated by for-profit companies) told us so. And really, who am I to argue with the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Football Rankings, presented by the
The athletic director of Don Bosco and the president of Trinity agreed to a title game. Their planning got as far as settling on a place for the game:
The Don Bosco AD, Brian McAleer, told the Louisville Courier Journal: "I think it would have been a good opportunity for the kids. It's a shame we weren't allowed to do it."
The NFHS had a different view. "Any type of national competition would detract from the importance of state high school championships and enhance the emphasis on elite athletes and teams," the organization's executive director and president wrote in 2011. In other words, they might be terrific football players, but they're just kids.
The pressure to turn high school football into something akin to the
If anything, our embrace of high school sports only has become more problematic, especially for players at the top of the heap.
Often, the games feature top-rated teams from football hotbeds like Florida and South Carolina. Other times, the games have celebrity star power. In 2009, ESPN matched Oaks Christian High School in Southern California and Skyline High School in Seattle — a matchup of West Coast powers. The Oaks Christian quarterback was Nick Montana, son of the NFL Hall of Famer
Maybe high school athletes are ready for that sort of national acclaim and scrutiny. Maybe. How about elementary school students? There are approximately 285,000 kids playing Pop Warner football, making it the biggest youth program in the sport. Each year, the best of the best travel to
Who's No. 1? Sometimes, he's a third grader.