by Walter Brasch
With the opening of the high school football season, local newspapers and TV stations have again been running lists of what they believe are the top teams.
Most lists rank teams in the “top 10.” One Pennsylvania TV station, whose on-air number is 16, runs the “Top 16.”
There are several problems with these lists. First, we don’t know how they got those rankings. We don’t know who makes up those lists or what criteria were used. It could be a sports editor and her grandfather. It could be a bunch of station personnel sitting at a bar, throwing back vodka slammers and team names.
Even if we know how the lists are compiled, a second major question arises. Why? Yes, why? Why does it matter? Aren’t won-loss records good enough? Shouldn’t the only rankings that matter be who enters and wins in the playoffs?
Some newspapers have a half-dozen staffers and a couple of subscribers make predictions of the upcoming high school, college, and pro football games. Winners get prestige and, sometimes, gift cards from local advertisers.
Some newspapers run the odds on upcoming games, apparently so their subscribers have basic, although seldom accurate, information to assist them with bets. While betting on college and pro games is fairly common, and mostly illegal, should anyone be betting on high school games?
Several sites rank teams from throughout the country. USAToday runs a pre-season ranking of the Top 25 football teams. With one million boys playing football on 14,000 teams, does anyone think anyone, even those with access to a super-Cray computer, can accurately define the “top 25.” USAToday during mid-summer also does a composite score of four national sites which determine the “Top High School Prospects.” These are, supposedly, the “top 100” high school players, and top recruits for a college football scholarship.
The rankings don’t stop with football. USAToday also ranks the “top 25” teams in almost every sport, including girls lacrosse and boys soccer.
Do these rankings and predictions give the sports departments something to fill time and space? Do they make the sports editor appear to be powerful or intelligent? Are the lists something to allow fans to believe their team is good enough to be ranked? Or to complain that their team was cheated and should be ranked No. 3, instead of No. 17?
Related to rankings are the persistent countdowns of the “Best Play of the Week” and “Athlete of the Week.” These TV clips are loaded in favor of quarterbacks throwing balls to receivers or running backs sidestepping two tackles to score from 20 yards out. Usually overlooked is a great block that springs the running back loose. Or, maybe a quarterback sack that stops the other team’s momentum. But, every week there’s some play that someone-we don’t know who-and we certainly don’t know the criteria-decides for the rest of us.
On Saturdays, we shouldn’t care who was ranked or what the best play was from the night before. We should care that the teenage boys did their best, played hard, and enjoyed their time on the field.
After all, it’s only a game.
[Dr. Brasch began his journalism career as a sports writer and then as a sports editor before turning to public affairs/investigative reporting and in-depth feature writing. He is the author of 20 books. His latest is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster.]