Commentary

The state of high school sports

Updated: May 29, 2009, 2:29 PM ET
By Chris Lawlor | ESPNRISE.com

In today's hard times, high school sports are a welcome diversion. For parents, there is nothing so pure and simple as watching sons and daughters on the playing field, competing in games far removed from the maddening issues in today's pro sports.

[+] EnlargeAvery Bradley
Chris Rossi for ESPN.comTournaments like NHSI have raised questions about true national high school championships.

Yet even high school sports have not been spared in this tough economy. Bob Kanaby, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, is painfully aware each day as he watches the same scene played out in school districts across the nation. Schools cannot make payrolls and their districts are begging taxpayers to approve bloated budgets for the upcoming academic year. Athletic departments are especially hard-hit; sometimes failing to make the cut.

From his headquarters in Indianapolis, Kanaby tackles these issues tactfully. His mission is to maintain a level playing field for high school sports, while at the same time looking to add additional revenue streams, trying to make sense of national tournaments, directing and leading national committees and overseeing rules changes in various sports.

Kanaby, a native of Jersey City, N.J., is an educator at the core. He coached high school basketball at his alma mater, St. Anthony High, and played college basketball simultaneously at Jersey City State (now New Jersey City University) in the 1960s.

He rose through the ranks of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association before taking over the NFHS nearly two decades ago.

As the 2008-09 school year winds down, Kanaby took time out for ESPN RISE, providing insight and an informal state of America's high school athletics.

The Future

ESPN RISE looks into its crystal ball to see what stories, players and trends are coming to high school sports.

The future …
// Boys athletes to watch
// Girls athletes to watch
// Baseball: Bryce Harper
// Sports to watch (and play)
// Headlines in 2010
// Lifestyle: Music / Sneakers / Video games

Future issues facing high school sports:
// National championships
// Liscensing deals
// The national federation

ESPN RISE: The poor economy headlines news today. What are your thoughts? How concerned are the constituents?

Bob Kanaby: I've noticed it's a mixed bag. Attendance for high school football games in North Carolina was up 10 percent and the state basketball tournaments did well. It all depends where you live. In Michigan, the economy is really struggling. The impact is felt more where the unemployment rate is up.

We're working with our associations and providing them with ideas for fundraising and options for additional revenue streams.

First thing to go are contests. You save money on travel and game officials with fewer games. Florida is doing it this year.

Instead of emphasizing the negatives of the economy, we're looking at the positives. If you think about it, where else can you see three or four competitive games for $5 or $7? At state tournaments, you pay this amount and see four championship games. It's the greatest bargain in sports.

You pay $150 for concerts, but for less than $10 per person you can take your family to the games. It's a great home value and stresses our greatest resources … our student-athletes.

ESPN RISE: Some have suggested "pay for play," while some schools have implemented this policy for years. Is this good? What's the alternative?

Kanaby: From my experience, it doesn't work. There are schools in 35 states that do it. We've seen an attendance drop where they have it; families won't move into a community where you have to pay extra. People aren't willing to pay for a beaker for the science class, why pay to play?

ESPN RISE: Recently the National High School Invitational, national boys and girls basketball tournaments, were conducted in Maryland. What was the National Federation's reaction? Was it good? If not, why?

Kanaby: In my opinion, it's not high school basketball. Most of these schools were independent and did not have to answer to an association. The players were from all over the country. There's something to be said for a school that represents a community and when they win a state title it's a big deal in their town.

ESPN RISE: Have states ever considered pooling their resources to conduct a national championship tournament (regardless of sport)?

High School Lacrosse
Icon SMIEven in tough economic times, sports like lacrosse are flourishing around the country.

Kanaby: There's been talk over the years, but not all the associations are interested. I'm sure the subject will come up again.

ESPN RISE: What are the fastest-growing sports? On the boys' side; [and] what about the girls?

Kanaby: Lacrosse is growing quickly on both sides. It's fast-paced and often said to be basketball with sticks. There's an element of physicality, with all players demonstrating a tremendous determination and drive.

However, both games -- boys and girls -- are uniquely different. The girls rely on finesse, while boys are more physical.

Wrestling, despite a number of NCAA schools cutting back their programs, is holding its own. It continues to prosper and grow, and I believe there's a passionate following. Girls are thriving in this sport; many place in their state tournaments and win titles. Texas and Hawaii now have separate championships, showing the potential.

ESPN RISE: The use of video replay during the fourth quarter of state championship games is a stroke of genius. What prompted this?

Kanaby: Well, if the technology is there, why not use it under certain circumstances? This was prompted after a few situations we had in 2008 where the outcome of a state championship needed review. The only time the video will be used is on the last shot if it determines the outcome.

ESPN RISE: Recruiting is always a hot-button issue. Any talk of increasing the years of education a student-athlete needs to complete? Are they protected enough?

Kanaby: I understand there's lucrative money out there, but you know my stance as an educator. Leaving early for a pro career shortchanges the educational experience. There's a young man [Jeremy Tyler of San Diego] who is headed to Europe this year, and he still has a year of eligibility left in high school. Personally I'm not in favor of this, but it now opens a spot on the varsity for another deserving player. Circumventing the educational processes -- high school and college -- diminishes the individual's experience. College and education in general give you backup plans.

ESPN RISE: In 2006, the National Federation and T-Mobile teamed up for basketball tournaments held annually following Christmas. Is the fourth edition of these tournaments on target for December? Do you envision expanding the format or moving the dates of the tournaments to accommodate other well-established tournaments?

Kanaby: No, we're staying put after Christmas. There's talk about moving but nothing yet; this year we'll play the tournament in Alabama. The feedback from the participating coaches has been great. Bob Hurley, who coaches St. Anthony High in Jersey City, said it was one of the finest tournament experiences he's had as a coach.

ESPN RISE: Some states such as Texas and New Jersey have started random drug testing [on] their student-athletes. Are you in favor of drug testing for performance-enhancing drugs and anabolic steroids nationwide?

Kanaby: Personally, these programs serve as a deterrent, and that's a positive. The program explains how dangerous these drugs can be, and there's a lot of negative that can happen down the road. Those negatives far outweigh everything.

They may make you bigger and stronger right now but what about 10, 20, 30 years down the road, God willing you make it? The program presents the facts and tells the truth. Though there's a small percentage of data available, it shows steroids use is down. Testing sends a message.

ESPN RISE: What has been the feedback?

Kanaby: We have other states interested in what's going on in Texas and New Jersey. We have educational programs in place to explain how their programs work.

ESPN RISE: The swine flu epidemic (H1N1) is making news. What have you told the membership?

Kanaby: Listen to what your state department of health suggests; all states are different. It's obviously serious enough that Texas and New Mexico suspended activities to better understand what it is.

ESPN RISE: Recently the National Federation has entered an agreement with Licensing Resource Group, LLC (LRG). Tell us the impact this agreement may have on additional revenue streams for the National Federations and other state associations. Sounds like a great agreement; has it met with any discord? Why haven't all 51 state associations signed on? Will it be a hot topic at this summer's national meeting?

Kanaby: It's a pilot program which 11 states have signed up for; it's strictly optional. Before we went to the associations we did a prudent review and checked out all the options. There's a marketplace out there for high schools from California to New Jersey. Once the program ends this year, we'll have more joining.

Essentially, schools can market their name and logo with retailers and receive a percentage of the sales. Normally schools received zero dollars for their trademarks or logos. This way hot items will give back to the school. The state associations and the National Federation will also receive a percentage. It's just another revenue stream, which benefits all.

ESPN RISE: Speaking of the summer meeting in Chicago, what are the pressing issues? Is there anything that really stands out?

Kanaby: Besides the economy, it's probably technology and webcasting. The Web is a great way to deliver our programs. We're always listening on ways to improve our technology.

ESPN RISE: Do you envision one day all states and the District of Columbia unified, living under the same guidelines, or is that asking too much?

Kanaby: Personally, I don't see it happening. It would [take] special circumstances for it to happen, or even brought to discussion. History is on the side of all 51 state associations. They worked hard over the years.

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball and boys' and girls' basketball. He also worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, for which he ran the Gatorade national Player of the Year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.