From the Sidelines: Fundamental flaws

Published 10:24 pm Tuesday, January 20, 2009

One of the realities of the mega-media age in which we live is that sports have taken on a level unlike anything they have previously reached. Mass dissemination of information for such an inexpensive cost makes talk of sports and images of sports readily accessible to the point that athletics permeates society.

The effects of this can be seen in numerous places. The celebrity of athletes such as Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez and Brett Favre transcend their respective games to make these men readily recognizable to a majority of Americans.

The pedestal on which sports sit in society has fed the creation and success of franchises like ESPN, a media conglomerate that has found success in dedicating a Web site, magazine, radio station and multiple television networks to the coverage of major athletics.

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Have you ever thought about the influence ESPN and similar operations have on society?

For instance, take SportsCenter, the network’s flagship program. The nightly television show puts together highlight packages of all of the biggest games of the day, attempting to portray the story of an individual contest in around 30 seconds. At the conclusion of each day’s show, there is a segment featuring the Top 10 plays. That segment features the 10 best highlights of the day.

Fair enough. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the process. It is entertaining and features the best and brightest from the day that was.

However, there is an unintentional byproduct of SportsCenter’s format that can be seen in its truest form on high school basketball courts. Unfortunately, there is a sincere lack of fundamentals on display at many prep games as players all too often seek to throw down monstrous dunks, jack up long-range threes and show off their not-yet-ready-for-prime-time teardrop lay-ups.

The things that don’t fit into SportsCenter’s 30-second windows, like screens, bank shots, box outs and sound defensive play, typically fail to make the transition into the repertoires of the show’s most impressionable viewers.

Still, as frustrating as such things are, there are more alarming trends trickling down from professional sports to the high school scene.

I was oblivious to one such trend until I returned to the office after a basketball game I recently covered. As is customary, I uploaded my photographs from the camera to the computer and started rummaging through them in an effort to find the best shots I could for the next day’s paper.

This particular set of photos didn’t really boast my best work, but there were a couple of usable pieces of art. So I plucked out the best one, moved it into Photoshop and started working.

I went through the normal processes of sharpening and toning. Then, it occurs to me that the background of this photo is filled with high school cheerleaders. This is not an uncommon thing. High school basketball games generally have high school cheerleaders.

However, this particular cluster of cheerleaders were wearing skirts that barely reached the tops of their thighs. One young lady was seated while another was standing and facing away from the camera. Unfortunately, a little more of each girl was revealed by the brevity of the skirt than should have been. Moreover, they were positioned on either side of the player in focus, making it impossible to crop the photo in such a way so as to make it worthy of printing in a community newspaper.

So I decided to scrap the photo until I realized that each of my other usable pictures from the game had the same problem. In all of them were contained more revelations than should have been made in such a venue.

Then I got to thinking about the role that cheerleaders play in sports at higher levels. The first things that came to my mind were NFL and NBA games where cheerleaders are scantily clad and on the sidelines for little more than the purpose of serving as eye candy.

I momentarily squelched the thought. At the high school level, cheerleading is much more of a useful pasttime. Most girls on cheerleading squads put great effort into not only learning their routines and working to keep the crowds pumped, but also at helping out the booster clubs and coaching staffs with various projects needed for the successful operation of athletic programs. Moreover, many of them are frequently engaged in service projects to benefit the community.

So what, then, would be the purpose of taking a young lady who works hard at showing off virtues in no way related to her appearance and putting her in a cheerleading uniform that shows off — well — other things?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the purpose of such uniforms at the high school level is actually no different than it is at the professional level.

That statement may not land well with some. But think about it.

Granted, the uniforms of most NFL and NBA cheerleaders consist of far less material than do high school uniforms, and many may not meet the stringent dress codes of a brothel. However, the point remains that their inherent purpose is to highlight the sex appeal of the wearer.

The unpleasant truth is that, at the high school level, the uniforms of many cheerleading squads have the same purpose. And, gradually, the hemline of societal acceptability is moving just a little further north with each passing year.

And, truthfully, it is nothing short of baffling.

We have an education system that, in theory, strives to grow young girls into young women, all the while striving to protect and preserve their virtue for as long as they are in its charge. Yet, here are those same young girls at school-sanctioned events with uniforms that defy such a creed.

Maybe I’m a prude. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned. Maybe it is archaic to believe that the preservation of the innocence of our young people — even the ones rapidly closing in on adulthood — should be an important value of our education system.

One thing is for certain, however: strong defensive play and smart shot selection aren’t the only fundamentals disappearing from high school athletics.