A Texas Hand-Wringer: Is Football Too Popular?

After sunset the faithful gather, shoulder to shoulder, in floodlit sanctuaries across Texas. Throughout the night, they'll sing songs of praise, tremble with excitement, wince, weep, shield their eyes, and pray for salvation. Especially if it's fourth and long.

Call it the church of football.

Each year, 10 million Texans attend Friday night high-school football games, some of which take place in $6 million stadiums with air-conditioned sky boxes. Emotions run so deep that athletes will play with broken ankles, parents will engage in post-game fistfights, and a losing coach might wake up to a "for sale" sign in his yard.

This week, in the midst of the Texas state playoffs, towns whose teams remain in the championship chase will seemingly sprout wheels: crawling behind the team bus on game days in a raucous, horn-tooting, placard-waving convoy. But despite all the hoopla, there are indications that the Lone Star State's passion for schoolboy football may be cooling.

As demographics change and the state's oil-and-cowboy culture gives way to a more technology and service oriented economy, Texans are questioning football's exalted status. Critics say the 300,000 students who participate on teams, marching bands, and cheerleading squads each year are getting shortchanged in the classroom.

"There's no question that there's a heavy emphasis on football in Texas," says Don Albrecht, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University.

"In some cases, football is taking up funds and resources that could be used to develop academic programs," Albrecht says.

The controversy is not new. In a popular 1990 book, "Friday Night Lights," journalist H.G. Bissinger exposed the depth of the football mania in Odessa, Texas, where the school district spent more money on medical supplies for football players than on library books. Although the Texas legislature adopted a "no pass no play" rule in 1984 requiring players to maintain a 70 average in all classes or sit out for six weeks, a 1994 amendment shortened the suspension period to 21 days.

Each year, new scandals emerge. Eligibility battles go to court, players collapse in grueling August practices, and cheerleading tryouts turn into nasty feuds. A recent poll found that as many as 68 percent of Texans think the sport is overemphasized in schools, and a study showed that in some districts, football coaches make twice as much as teachers.

In addition, two decades of steady migration from Northern and Western states and an increase in the state's Hispanic population have changed the state's cultural flavor. A place that once viewed itself as a bastion of rugged individualism typified by roughnecks and ranchers is becoming a technological center where education often matters more than gridiron heroics.

"We're seeing a lot more kids who are not as eager to participate," says Bill Farney, executive director of the state's football governing body, the University Interscholastic League.

For years, Mr. Farney continues, football was the only means for isolated Texas communities to test themselves. Games were civic events, social occasions, and often the sole source of entertainment.

To young men, the game was a test of manhood and stature that marked them for life. "If you were a football player, the community stamped you as someone who could get with it," Farney says. "Unless you played football, you weren't considered a strong person."

Nowadays, Farney says, that culture is disappearing. Jobs that require physical labor are declining, and the popularity of fast food and TV has produced a generation of kids who are not as physically fit. According to Farney, many parents believe the value of the physical skills football teaches no longer outweighs the game's relatively high risk of injury. They tend to steer their children to sports like soccer, tennis, and golf, he says.

But whatever societal forces are at work, Farney and other observers agree that the core issue is football's effect on education. At a time when many schools are struggling to meet basic operational costs, some parents are outraged that football coaches at the same schools make as much as $80,000. To critics, and even some coaches, there's been a confusion of priorities.

"Sports are part of an overall education process," says Eddie Joseph, executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association. "The primary purpose of schools in Texas is to educate children, and ... that is the most important thing."

Yet despite mounting calls for reform, a recent University of Texas poll found that 78 percent of Texans agree that football is important in schools. It's a conclusion that seems to transcend race, gender, and geography in this far-flung state.

Texas A&M's Professor Albrecht, for one, is not surprised. He's argued for years in his sociology of sport classes that football is an excellent way to build life skills like discipline, physical fitness, and teamwork. He cites studies that show football players tend to have higher-than-average grades and that football often keeps students in school who would otherwise drop out. Moreover, he says, high school football has played an invaluable role in integration, and in fostering community pride.

Nevertheless, for many Texans, the love affair with football is all but over. Colleen Delatour, a former high school cheerleader, is one of them. Cheerleading was an experience she never would have traded, the Dallas mother of three says, until college.

"I realized that I was not prepared to perform on a college level," she says. "All the time I spent on cheerleading really took me away from my studies ... I won't say I regret what I did, but I won't encourage my kids to take football so seriously."

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