'Friday Night Lights' meets 'The Decision'

BY foxsports • February 14, 2011

The top-rated high school football prospect in America is going to reveal Monday morning where he's going to college.

It will be broadcast live on national TV. Anyone still wondering whether NFL owners are emboldened enough to pull the plug on next season, or how athletes get such swelled heads - leaving steroids out of the equation for the moment - should tune in. A few minutes will be enough to understand why both parties feel like the rest of the world can't live without them.

What you'll see is a mash-up of ''Friday Night Lights'' and ''The Decision,'' cooked up, not coincidentally, by ESPN. It will mark the merciful final few minutes of a record 10 hours of breathless reporting and analysis the network has devoted to Signing Day (which began Feb. 2, but like Hanukah, somehow lasts nearly two months).

The star is a kid named Jadeveon Clowney, from Rock Hill, S.C., who just turned 18 but has been on recruiters' radar screens since he was a sophomore. Clowney is so good - 36 touchdowns as a freshman running back, followed by 84 sacks as a three-year starter at defensive end - that it's tempting to say he justifies the hype. Except that's impossible anymore.

Back before signing day merited capital letters, kids like Clowney would have been treated to an announcement over the PA in homeroom, an assembly, a feature in the local paper and a few lines in sports sections everywhere else. These days, he and another 200 or so ranked prep players have become ''programming,'' which State U. sells to TV networks so they can turn around and overpay the coaches that brought them to campus.

It's a great little moneymaker for everyone involved but the kids, who don't get paid unless or until they repeat the signing ceremony, next time in the pros. They do get scholarships in the meantime, but rarely enough time to learn anything besides football, which is what made Alabama coach Nick Saban's remark about ''pimps'' last July so inadvertently funny.

Saban was referring to agents who funneled ''extra benefits'' - cars, free trips and the like - to players who turned out to be more interested in a downpayment on their potential NFL earnings than their eligibility. Apparently he was outraged that someone else would try to make money off a kid before he and the rest of the quick-buck artists running the college game were through with them.

Good thing Cam Newton wound up playing for Auburn instead of 'Bama, since who knows what Saban would have called Cam's father, Cecil, who was accused of shopping his son's services at Mississippi State beforehand for a cool $180,000.

None of those scams concern the NFL, of course. Come summer, one of its teams will gladly throw open the training-camp doors to Cam Newton, assuming they haven't been padlocked beforehand. The league's front-office staffs don't have to worry about eligibility, except when the commissioner cracks down on the occasional gun-toter, drug cheat or budding criminal who just happens to be on their payroll.

Even so, with the NFL squeezing more from more revenue streams than ever before, and the games more popular than they've ever been, there's more than enough of both cash and credit to spread around. Just don't try telling that to the negotiators for the owners and players.

The problem with building an empire is that sooner or later, you're bound to bump into someone else's. And right now, the sense of entitlement is felt just as strongly around the league's front offices as it is on the fields.

No doubt the NFL's suits believe it was their business acumen that attracted networks and sponsors willing to pony up so fans could watch nothing more compelling than names going up on a draft board. And just as surely, the players are convinced it's their star power that puts fannies in the seats of an arena several months before a football gets throw with any real purpose.

What's easy to pinpoint is where the disconnect starts. That would be on the stage set up so Clowney can announce where he'll be taking his talents next season.

''Do we make too much of Paris Hilton? Yes,'' said Tom Pagley, the athletic director at Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) Dwyer High, which is sending a few kids off to major colleges on scholarships this year.

''We make too much of all the stuff that's out there. If there's a market for it,'' he added, ''that's what is going to happen.''

No kidding.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org