Monday, November 20, 2006 Updated: November 22, 11:50 AM ET
Fiction as a microscope for preps
By Robert Lipsyte Special to Page 2
This is what I learned in high school this year: The kids are not all right, and some of them even know why.
I've been talking to high school kids, especially jocks, on my book tour for "Raiders Night," a controversial new young-adult novel about the aftermath of a brutal training-camp hazing incident. In the book, the coaches, the school and the town try to put a lid on the incident. On the tour, coaches, schools and towns have been trying to put a lid on the book.
"Raiders Night" has become a banned substance in many places. It is clearly R-rated. I've been told that the hazing scene is too graphic, and that the language, sex, recreational drugs and steroid use will offend the kind of parents who put locks on their computers. I can understand that. But I think something else is going on. I have been invited by librarians and teachers, the usual gatekeepers of language, then disinvited by athletic directors and principals.
This has happened now in such places as Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C., which I can understand. High school football is a righteous church in Texas, and the apologetic librarians who met me in a Raleigh bookstore one night wondered if the troubles at nearby Duke might have rubbed everyone raw.
But Washington, D.C.?
The librarian of an upper crust boys school that educates the sons of senators and media bigfoots had invited me before. She was enthusiastic this time after reading "Raiders Night" reviews and a letter to her in which I wrote, "I'm also interested in creating a national dialogue about Jock Culture, its impact on kids and families and how some of its worst values and definitions exclusivity, sexism and homophobia, domination, winning at any cost have become ingrained in our national psyche. It's not hard to connect the dots from the field house to the White House."
She liked the idea that the protagonist, a steroid-using, Vicodin-popping wide receiver, struggles with his conscience; as a captain, he wants to do the right thing but also wants to do the best thing -- get a scholarship far away from his driven, abusive father. The librarian said making moral choices is a major topic at her school.
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"Raiders Night" is a fictional depiction of a hazing incident at a high school football training camp.
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Not long afterward she sheepishly got back to me. The director of athletics had wondered why I wasn't also going to "talk about music" and the headmaster wondered if I couldn't talk about "violence in our society with jock culture as one of its manifestations." They didn't seem all that concerned about the language in the book, the sex and the drugs. I think they got the yips from the hard look at the dark side of high school sports, the arena in which they controlled their boys and whipped them into shape for the big time.
I wasn't going to change the message, and so I was disinvited.
As it turned out, the high school kids I did get to, in New York, Illinois, Michigan and California, weren't all that concerned about the language, the sex and drugs in the book, either. It was what they lived with every day. They said they could handle that. What they did want to talk about was something they obviously couldn't handle betrayal by adult society.
At one suburban Chicago high school where more than a hundred juniors and seniors had read the book before I came to speak, the football players I talked to privately wanted to vent about their profound and sophisticated mistrust of coaches.
"There's like one coach I might talk to," a senior lineman told me, "an old guy, maybe 60, who doesn't have anything to prove. He's retired, he won a championship in another district, and he volunteers with us. But the head coach and the other guys, all they care about is winning. Play you hurt, mess with your head, they don't really care about us."
His friends agreed, although some of them weren't so sure about the old guy, either. When I brought up the tacit complicity of their parents, there was some eye rolling among themselves, but otherwise they got busy with the water and cookies the librarians had set out for us. As a group, they didn't want to go there. Alone, some players talked about how excited their dads and moms got at games, how important success at football seemed to be at home. It was clear that talking about it made them uneasy. Talking about it makes Dr. Michael Miletic mad.
"We're seeing an escalation of what is pure and simple child exploitation," he said. "Coaches and school administrators are doing it for personal sometimes financial gain and parents are doing it for emotional gain. In some cases it becomes child abuse."
Dr. Miletic was my coach and partner in the creation of "Raiders Night." Most of the book's best insights came from his medical practice and athletic experience. He is a Detroit-area psychiatrist who played high school football before majoring in weight-lifting and becoming a Canadian heavyweight champion and a member of the Olympic team.
"It's very seductive when adults promise a kid fame, power, glory. But what they are really doing is derailing and skewing his development, taking away his chance of having healthy relationships, moral values, of a grounded control of his own life."
He wasn't at all surprised about my tales of athletes' distrust of adults. "They see what's going on. How can they trust authority figures? What's interesting is in the past 10 years or so, the moral authority of coaches has eroded and parents are taking over, using the coaches as vehicles for their kids' advancement, threatening their jobs if they don't win. The parents are putting pressure on the coaches as well as the kids. No wonder there's steroids and abusive behavior."
All this is happening right now because high school sports is the next gusher in the jock entertainment complex. The ground is already rumbling. It took H.G. Bissinger's classic, "Friday Night Lights," 14 years to make it from the page to the big screen, but now it's a network TV show as well. Its time has come. Hoover High of Birmingham, Ala., arguably the best prep team in the country, has its own MTV show, "Two-A-Days." Last year, an ESPN reality show, "Bound for Glory," featured the football team of Montour High in McKees Rocks, Pa., trying to return to its state championship days with Dick Butkus as coach, Reebok uniforms and a new $40,000 scoreboard.
Meanwhile, ESPN and Fox Sports will be televising 21 high school football and basketball games nationally. Nationally. Sports Illustrated has joined USA Today in publishing high school rankings (they already proliferate online) and stories of high school and college scouts at Pee Wee games are no longer strange but true. It may be the reason the shoe companies are phasing out their meat-market summer camps the college coaches know who the blue chips are by the time they get out of junior high.
Two years ago, Judith Thompson, then marketing director for the National Federation of State High School Associations, told the New York Times, ''Corporate involvement at the high school level is about to explode nationwide. It's an unlimited, untapped market and it is in places companies often can't easily reach. But on any given Friday night, in all those middle-American flyover states, sitting in high school football stadiums are millions of people.''
By the next day, she later told SportsBusiness Journal, "Cell phone companies, quick-serve restaurants, pizza they were all calling. Fortune 500 companies with big budgets."
But nothing much happened because the federation has no real power over its member state associations who could not agree on a national system of championships that could be underwritten by giant corporations. While almost every state needs the money, most of them were not ready to give up local power and/or make deals with the devil.
So that's how close the high school sports biz is right now to becoming a commercial minor league for colleges in much the way the college sports biz is a commercial minor league for pro sports. All it needs is a charismatic leader, a Baron de Coubertin, a Bill France, a Peter Ueberroth.
That commercialization may already have happened in Texas, where naming rights for high school fields go for a million or more and Friday night games have traditionally not been televised in real time to protect the live box office. Dave Stephenson of Titus Sports Marketing, who brokered the $1.9 million naming deal in Tyler, Texas, told SportsBusiness Journal, "Every superintendent in Texas has in his files a contract for Coke or Pepsi or Dr Pepper that runs 10 years for seven figures. Now they want to know what else is out there."
Everything's out there, and once it comes in anything goes. The pressure on high school kids to perform will be even more intense than on college kids, who tend to be less vulnerable to coaches and dads (especially if they're not living at home), and more aware that this will probably be their final level of play.
High school boys, those immortal risk takers, seduced and excited by Showtime arriving along with hormonal tsunamis and a driver's license, will put their souls, bodies and neurons on the line to make men proud.
Steroid use will escalate, of course. While it may be, as Dr. Miletic believes, only a symptom of exploitation and abuse, it is the most vivid window on just how insidiously adults betray children.
Here is a common scenario, from jocks on the road and from Dr. Miletic's case histories.
In late spring, before the end of classes and the start of the "voluntary" captains' weight-lifting sessions, one of the assistant football coaches will take a junior aside and casually say, "You know, if you could put on 30 pounds this summer, you could get a I-A ride."
The kid is no dummy; he knows what that means. The andro and creatine aren't enough anymore. He's seen older kids put on muscle over a summer and start hitting like trucks. They'd spring pimples on their backs and some nasty moods, but those who stuck with the lifting program along with the juice often got their scholarships. On the other hand, he knew that 30 pounds worth of anabolic steroids could cost $5,000.
At dinner that night, the kid repeats what the coach said to his dad, who nods and says, "You better hit the weights this summer."
"What about my job?"
"Maybe I can help you out."
The kid goes upstairs and Googles anabolic steroids, which he has done before, but this time he is trying to absorb enough information so he doesn't look like a newbie when he goes into the market. He roams the suppliers who promise good gear and no scams and no chance of "sweater melons" or raging acne. He checks the ads for additives called Velocity and Thermocharge. He pauses in the chat rooms where lifters discuss stacking and pyramiding and how only a fool doesn't take a break after eight weeks. Nobody is talking right or wrong here, just the right way and the wrong way to cycle properly and grow big. He's nervous, but it's obvious that thousands of guys have done this before.
As expected, dad leaves his wallet out, with enough cash for a start. Soon enough, he'll leave out a debit card.
The kid is wary of mail order, so he talks to some lifters who played ball in past years and eventually finds his way to an ironhead gym on the highway and a friend of a friend who deals out of his trunk in the parking lot. Nice guy. He takes the time to show the kid how to inject into a thigh muscle. They practice on an orange.
This is based, I repeat, on anecdotal evidence, not scientific surveys. Which amazes me. With all the leaked BALCO papers, the reefer madness warnings from anti-doping officials and the media moralizing about big-league enhanced performers, there isn't much hard information on steroids and sports, especially its effect on the fastest-growing population of users, high school athletes. No one wants to deal with it, I think, because all that entertainment money is beginning to cascade down to the high school level and everybody wants a taste.
Even more dangerous than steroid use, I think, will be the widening gap between Jocks and Outsiders (also known as Pukes). It started in elementary school, of course, choosing up sides, dividing the already insecure into good bodies and bad bodies, and then took off as the littlest leagues started skimming their cream into traveling teams, some of whom roam the world with sneaker contracts.
The Jock-Outsider gap became a Sunday morning discussable after the 1999 Columbine massacre. I weighed in with a New York Times column on the shootings as a response to the arrogant, entitled behavior of high school athletes, as encouraged by the adults who lived vicariously through them. The e-mail was overwhelming. It became an Internet forum that wouldn't quit as middle-aged men exposed the emotional scars of high school.
This was typical:
When I attended high school, I had so much built-up anger from being treated unfairly that, if I had access to guns or explosives, I would have been driven to do a similar thing to take revenge on the bastard jocks who dominated the school and made those four years miserable for me. After high school, I was not surprised to hear that a handful of these jocks had either died as a result of drunk driving and drug overdoses, or had spent a little time in jail for violence or drug possession. As for the dead ones, I would probably pee on their graves.
Here's one from a jock:
We really did get special attention both from the students and from the teachers. We also did cruel things to other students. I have a 20th school anniversary this summer and plan on seeking forgiveness from the people I know I helped terrorize.
When I read those e-mails to high school kids on the "Raiders Night" tour, I expected eye rolling and snorts. Instead, they gave each other knowing glances. Two football players who had feet in both the Jock and the Outsider camps told me separately about other athletes "trash-canning" band geeks in the cafeteria or stuffing them into their lockers. Not a lot had changed from John Hughes' teen flicks of the '80s.
One of the biculturals seemed more like a character than a real kid. He was a Goth, tattooed, dressed in black with studs through his eyebrows. He looked quick and wiry. He said he was a receiver and cornerback. He took out the jewelry for games. The other football players gave him some crap for his clothes and piercings, but he could deal with it. The Goths couldn't understand at all how he could play. He seemed to be getting off being both a Jock outlaw and an Outsider outlaw. Eventually he was going to have to make a choice between the one created by adult authority and the one created to flout adult authority.
Just a few years ago, I went to Massachusetts to cover the coming out of an American icon, a high school football captain. His parents and teachers already knew Corey Johnson was gay, but now he had to tell his teammates. One freshman freaked. He ran to the other football captain and squeaked, "How do you expect me to shower with a gay guy?"
The captain said, "You're a football player, suck it up."
That seemed to turn the tide. They all sucked it up, got past it, and after they won the next game they presented Corey with the ball and on the bus ride home sang "YMCA."
I told that story on the book tour, and while I had to explain in some places that "YMCA" was considered, in the '90s, a gay theme song, the jocks liked the idea of sucking it up, of being tough. The macho thing.
Not all of them bought it. The other bicultural, an immense lineman with none of the muscle definition, Cro-Magnon jaw or acne you associate with juicers, told me he was president of the Science Club and was known around school as Captain Geek. He didn't expect to play college ball (actually, he said, he hoped he wouldn't have to, that he would get into MIT on a physics ride) and he was late to practice so we could talk privately. That surprised me. Didn't coach have rules? Sure, Captain Geek told me, but they didn't apply to 325-pounders who couldn't care less. He said he mostly played football so no one would mess with him or his friends. He told me that the sex, steroids and recreational drugs in the book were real, and that he had a better story.
A couple of years ago, he told me, his school's quarterback dumped his girlfriend just before Homecoming and took the replacement to the postgame parties. The ex followed them with her cell phone. She e-mailed the pictures she took of the backfield drinking and smoking pot to the coach and the principal. They were suspended.
We laughed about that and I promised him credit if there was a sequel.
Then he got serious. I don't think what he said was aberrational, that he was the only one who thought of it, but I do think he was a kid whose unusual situation gave him a rare emotional freedom, if not fearlessness.
"You know," he said, lowering his voice, "even the kids who drink the Kool-Aid know what's going on. The coaches are getting over on us. The school looks good when we win. Nobody's giving up his body for the coach or the school it's for your teammates, your buddies. I guess Iraq is like that."
Robert Lipsyte is a longtime author and a former columnist for The New York Times.