How can high school football teams be considered `fairly matched?'
I'll admit it. I'm a football junkie. Whether it's watching NFL games, following NCAA college football or just rooting for high school gridiron heroes, I'm captivated. In all cases I want to see competitive football, not one-sided, unfair matchups.
The NFL is very good at keeping its league free from unfair team advantages. Salary caps, draft picks based on previous records, and other rules prevent one team from establishing an unfair dynasty. Dynasties, even the current decade-long run by the Patriots, don't last. They are cyclical because NFL team-building rules keep the league at general parity.
Like the NFL, the NCAA has rules that ensure a relatively high level of competitiveness among college football teams. NCAA football divisions are determined fairly based on colleges' student body size and their football budgets. Additional fairness rules cover such diverse issues as recruiting, scholarships, transfers, grades, etc. These rules ensure that competing colleges enjoy similar demographics and resources.
Where football organization and rules fall abysmally short are at the high school level, especially here in Rhode Island.
What brought this to mind recently was the Rhode Island Interscholastic League's (RIIL) Division I football playoffs. As everyone expected, the state's two largest Catholic high schools, Bishop Hendricken and LaSalle Academy, met for the state high school football championship, with Hendricken winning for the seventh year in a row. The Division I Championship Game – a misnomer of gargantuan proportions – was played by the two second place teams, Portsmouth and Central, teams that had lost in the playoffs to Hendricken and LaSalle by huge scores. Theirs was truly a consolation game in every sense of the word, even though they were the two best public high school teams in the state.
Why can't Rhode Island's public high schools compete with the two big Catholic high schools? It's very simple. There is a huge disparity in student enrollment between the public and Catholic high schools, and the Catholic schools can recruit statewide while public schools cannot. In no one's universe can these two highly disproportionate situations result in fair competition between public and Catholic high schools.
There are 14 high schools in the two RIIL Division I leagues, 11 public schools and three Catholic schools with seven in Division IA and seven in Division IB. The winners of the two leagues play for the State High School Football Championship.
The average number of potential football players, male students, in Division I public high schools is about 550. The average number in the two large Catholic high schools, Hendricken and LaSalle, is about 875, with Hendricken averaging close to 950 every year.
How can high school football teams be considered "fairly matched" when the public teams have so many fewer students to pick from? Is it any wonder that Hendricken has dominated Rhode Island high school football for seven years when its student body has 400 more male students than the average public high school?
Even the four largest public schools, East Providence, Cranston East, Cranston West, and Woonsocket, each have about 200 fewer male students than Hendricken.
This disparity is greatly exacerbated because Catholic high schools recruit athletes from throughout the state while public high schools are restricted to students who live in their school districts. Is it fair for Hendricken, already with a 400 potential-player advantage, to recruit the state's best high school football prospects? The largest public schools, even with their 200-plus student disadvantage, might be able to compete with Hendricken were it not for that school's unfair recruiting advantage?
What's the answer? Should Hendricken and LaSalle be barred from playing against Rhode Island public schools? Should they perhaps play in a Tri-state Catholic school league?
Another method to create a level playing field would be for RIIL to deem an equitable percentage of male students at large Catholic schools ineligible for football based on a random lottery conducted at the beginning of each football season. In Hendricken's case, 400 of its 950 students would be ineligible, thus making the school's football eligibles equal to the male population of the average Division I public high school. Alternatively, Hendricken would lose 200 students to football eligibility to reach the average male population of Rhode Island's four large high schools.
This solution would also reduce the recruiting disadvantage suffered by public schools since many students with future big-college football potential might hesitate to commit to Hendricken knowing they would have only a 60-80 percent chance of playing football there.
Is this perhaps a draconian solution? Yes. But is it necessary? Unfortunately, the answer is also yes!
A Warwick resident and former Beacon columnist, Lonnie Barham is a frequent contributor to these pages.