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New No. 1: Miami Northwestern’s Jacory Harris (12) throws for yardage against Southlake Carroll on Sept. 15

Friday night blight

Sports | High-school football increasingly borrows from the worst of the pro-game playbook

Issue: "States' rights," Oct. 27, 2007

On Dec. 7 last year, law enforcement officials arrested 19-year-old Antwain Easterling for having sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old girl on a bathroom floor at Miami Northwestern High School. Out on bail two days later, Easterling rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown in helping the Bulls capture Florida's state championship.

That gross miscarriage of justice led to the firing of 21 Miami Northwestern employees, including the entire football coaching staff and the school's principal, all of whom had participated in a month-long cover-up of Easterling's crime. According to court documents, school officials ignored numerous calls from the victim's mother and put football ahead of justice and student safety.

Such misplacement of priorities is increasingly common in high-school athletics, as many communities elevate sports as the savior of their troubled youth. Stories routinely emerge of coaches improperly recruiting or financially compensating star players. And school administrators often overlook failing academic scores to ensure victories on Friday nights.

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Over the past few months, authorities have uncovered a shockingly bold recruiting scandal in Stockton, Calif., alleging that the powerful Franklin High football program lured 14 players from American Samoa with airfare, hotel rooms, and falsified housing addresses to feign eligibility. A number of other high schools have recently drawn accusations of videotaping opponents' play signals, a form of cheating popularized by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

But some school officials, politicians, and local citizens are fighting to reclaim the purity of interscholastic athletics. In Texas, state Sen. Kyle Janek (R-Houston) recently pushed through a bill that mandates random steroid testing for high-school athletes, legislation similar to existing laws in New Jersey and Florida. Prep sports gambling also took a recent hit when public outcry forced the offshore website 5dimes.com to stop accepting wagers on high-school games, an issue that came to light when bets began piling up on a Miami Northwestern game last month.

The reformed Bulls wanted no part in such shady activity. New Miami Northwestern principal Charles Hankerson, the fourth person to fill the job in the past two years, has instituted zero-tolerance policies for any unseemly behavior, such as disrespecting teachers or failing to wear school uniforms. Students participating in extracurricular activities are required to attend tutoring sessions after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.

Hankerson has vowed to intervene in any situation where students are not conducting themselves with class, a promise he made good on earlier this month after a Bulls wide receiver drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for showboating during a blowout victory. Hankerson scolded the player with a stern lecture, according to a report in the Miami Herald.

The school's new football coach Billy Rolle endorses that old-school approach and has vaulted his team to the No. 1 ranking in the country. The Bulls dethroned the nation's previous top team with a 29-21 victory over Southlake Carroll of Dallas last month, ending the Texas powerhouse's 49-game winning streak.

But for all the reform at Miami Northwestern, Easterling has experienced few consequences for his actions. Now on a football scholarship at the University of Southern Mississippi, he escaped trial or conviction by agreeing to undergo counseling.

On the box

In part, high-school football's recent struggles likely stem from the added exposure and consequent pressure of TV broadcasts. Comcast Entertainment Television began showcasing select games across the nation in 2004 and has expanded its coverage considerably since then. Local affiliates of the Fox Sports Network have likewise picked up high-school football. And 18 games will receive national television coverage this season on ESPN2, ESPNU, and FSN.

Defenders of this new enterprise say it adds to the excitement and experience for the student athletes. Most coaches and players welcome it. But some critics wonder whether TV coverage creates false perceptions of prep sports' relative importance-especially given the games' low ratings in most areas.

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