Commentary: ESPN and exploitation under those Friday night lights

You might think of them as quaint symbols of traditional Americana: kids playing the game for their school, classmates, parents, coaches, their town, even for the old codgers who misremember their own exploits on those playing fields.

You might think of them that way. ESPN thinks of them as cheap programming.

On Friday night, the insatiable sports network has conjured up a game anointed as the deciding contest for national high school football supremacy. The network has imported a high school team from 700 miles away in Duncan, S.C., designated as the nation's Number Two. The opponent, of course, has been assigned the arbitrary title of Number One — Fort Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas.

To better understand what's unfolding at Fort Lauderdale's Lockhart Stadium, consider the name of this TV program. Possibly, you've never been to a high school football game with a theatrical alias, laden with not one but two commercial sponsors. Welcome to the Old Spice High School Showcase Presented by Nike.

Don't mistake the Old Spice High School Showcase Presented By Nike as an aberration in high school sports. ESPN, with 22 high school TV games this year, has been in the business of exploiting high school football games since 2005. The network has taken to contriving games between distant winning high school programs previously happy to stay in their own vicinity.

ESPN, which recently paid $125 million for the rights to college football's Bowl Championship Series, recognized commercial potential dripping like sweat off those high schoolers, who would happily provide even cheaper labor than college jocks for a star turn on national television.

The network hasn't said how much it was paying this week's participants, but earlier this season a Naples high school was reportedly guaranteed $1,000 plus expenses to play a team in Norfolk, Va.

Stanley Eitzen, of Colorado State University, the author of a number of books on the sociology of sports, warned that ESPN's incursion into the Friday night lights was yet another indication that the sports industry intends to do to high school kids what it has done to college athletes. "High school sport is moving in the wrong direction, away from its place in education and toward the big-time college model."

Eitzen and Harvard Medical School's Richard Ginsburg, who has also written books on our overwrought sports culture, warned about the unhappy psychological effects that such outsized national exposure has on young athletes. Ginsburg spoke of the "unhealthy sense of narcissism" that national TV lends young sports heroes.

Eitzen expressed similar worries. He said the corporate take-over of high school athletics coincides with the "intense recruitment by colleges of these elite high school athletes," he said. "It inflates egos and gets in the way of their education. It also tends to make them cynical about education because of the sometimes sleazy aspects of recruiting."

He said, "These athletes are on the market. As such, they ultimately will be purchased by a university athletic department and they will be treated as commodities."

On Friday night, during ESPN's Old Spice High School Showcase Presented By Nike, the commodities will be offered up on national television, along with after-shave and athletic apparel.