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Media Fishbowl: Players in the spotlight like never before

30th Anniversary American Family Insurance ALL-USA Team: The Internet has changed everything



If Michael Ferns had performed his selfless act in 1982, his story and this photo wouldn't have gone viral. / Jeff Stewart

Ever since the inaugural American Family Insurance ALL-USA was named 30 years ago, a lot has changed in high school football. Players are bigger. Gear is lighter. Players are more specialized. In “Things Done Changed,” we’ll look at how the game has evolved.

One of the biggest changes in high school football since the inaugural American Family Insurance ALL-USA team was named 30 years ago is the scope and tenor of media coverage.

Back then, the ALL-USA honor was one of the only places that recognized the top high school athletes on a national level. Not anymore. Teen athletes can now become famous for their sports exploits before they’re old enough to get a learner’s permit.

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And the driving force behind that change is, without question, the Internet. Not only does it allow high school prodigies like LeBron James to become household names as high schoolers, but it also allows inspirational stories or crazy plays to go viral.  After an Ohio running back intentionally stepped out of bounds at the 1-yard line to give a teammate whose father died two days earlier a chance to score, the story got picked up by several national news organizations and even made its way to “Good Morning America.” 

Much of the added media attention on high school football, at least during the last decade, has been driven by interest from college football fans. Boosters and alums want to know about the recruits their beloved university hopes to bring to campus, and scores of outlets have sprung up to provide rankings, news and networks of school-specific blogs.

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For athletes, the explosion of media coverage thanks to the Internet is — like the Internet itself — essentially a double-edged sword. Whereas the pinnacle for a high school football player was once maybe a newspaper clipping, today’s student-athletes can track their stats online at sites like USATODAYhss.com, get connected with college coaches at beRecruited.com or upload their highlight reel to YouTube.

But they can also be picked apart, dissected, criticized and exposed to a level of vitriol previously unheard of — and completely without proper perspective — thanks to the anonymous droves of commenters that frequent fan blogs, newspapers websites or social media.

Just last month, Simeon (Chicago) basketball star Jabari Parker received profane, hateful Tweets after he committed to Duke over BYU, Florida, Michigan State and Stanford.

“They sometimes forget I’m a kid,” Parker said on “The Waddle & Silvy Show” on Chicago’s ESPN 1000. “It’s no problem, though. I know it comes with the territory, and it’s just going to make me stronger.”

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While it’s downright crazy to protest the prevalence of Twitter (or Facebook, or Instagram, or whatever comes out next week) at this point, it’s equally clear that providing teenagers — or anyone, really — with the opportunity to share their unfiltered thoughts with the world at large has consequences.

Yuri Wright, who last year was one of the nation’s top cornerbacks as a high school senior at powerhouse Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.), is propped up as a cautionary tale: Michigan stopped recruiting him after he was expelled from school for a series of offensive tweets. He’s now at Colorado.  

Chris Weinke, the former Heisman Trophy winner who now serves as director of football at IMG Academy, tells his pupils “it’s very simple.”

“You are always being evaluated,” he says. “That’s the simplest way to put it. Whatever you put out there, people are going to know. There are a lot of benefits of the media coverage, but there are also pitfalls, too. You can’t hide.”

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There’s an interesting contrast at work here: the risk is that endless media coverage can give high school football players an inflated sense of ego or importance, but because they’re in the spotlight there’s also a greater expectation that they behave.

And when they don’t, it’s potentially a big deal. Weinke says coaches are “willing to pass on guys that aren’t taking care of their business” off the field, whereas in his day (he graduated in 1990), all that mattered was what you did on the field.

The game has changed — and the coverage of its participants has changed accordingly.

 

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