In Our View: Playing Field isn't Level

A high school's socioeconomic status often reflected on football scoreboard

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Sports in America long have been a reflection of larger societal forces. Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier and presaged the Civil Rights era. Football became the nation's preeminent sport as television became its dominant pop culture outlet. Nike and Michael Jordan transformed marketing and the consumer culture.Sports often influence -- and are influenced by -- social and economic changes to the foundation of the country. So it is no surprise, really, to find high school football on the local level being reflective of economic realities in Clark County.

As detailed in a recent Columbian story by reporter Paul Valencia, the success of your favorite high school football team typically mirrors its socio-economic demographic. Valencia and Web editor John Hill examined the percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunch programs -- an indicator of an area's affluence -- at each local high school and found that those numbers coincided with a school's on-field football success. Camas, for example, has the lowest rate of students on lunch programs -- 19 percent -- among large schools in Southwest Washington. The Papermakers have reached the state semifinals in football each of the past two years and are ranked No. 1 in the state this season.

The quick explanation for the correlation between affluence and football is that high school sports have become a year-round endeavor. Even preteen athletes these days partake in constant training and receive out-of-school coaching in order to excel in their chosen sports, and by the time they get to high school they are better prepared for success on the field. That often requires time and money on the part of the parents.

"A lot of the out-of-season work takes an incredible amount of time," Mick Hoffman, athletic director for Vancouver Public Schools, told Valencia. "There are transportation issues. Some kids are working or providing day care for their siblings."

Or, as Camas football coach Jon Eagle has said, the concerns of coaches at some schools are much different than the problems he faces in his program. Some coaches "worry about, 'Have my kids had breakfast?'" Eagle told The Columbian in 2011. "I'm worried about, 'Am I going to have 60 kids or 80 kids going to the Oregon State camp this summer and paying $300 a pop?'"

The result has been seasons like last year, when Camas won league contests against schools with comparable enrollments by scores such as 77-28, 55-21, and 49-21.

The point of this exercise is not to decry excellence on the part of Camas or any other school. Nor is to lament schools that are unable to compete at a reasonable level. No, the point is to suggest that in sports, despite common declarations to the contrary, the end result is not always the ultimate measure of success. Sports fans like to say "scoreboard," indicating all that is meaningful can be found in the lighted numbers at the end of the game. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is that, in a capitalistic society, there always are going to be the advantaged and the disadvantaged; there always are going to be haves and have-nots. Governments can do a little to mitigate those differences, but we have chosen a system that celebrates and provides incentives rather than disincentives for excellence. Yet it is those advantages and disadvantages that must be remembered when assessing the outcome of a game. Wins and losses are not found only in the arena; they are found in the simple act of competing and trying to be better today than you were the day before.