Sunday, August 19, 2007

Valley wins. Big surprise.

Perhaps you saw the story about Iowa high school athletics on the front of the Sports section in Friday's Des Moines Register. Here are the first couple sentences, edited for, um, clarity:

"West Des Moines Valley isn't the only team eligible for the 'Iowa's Largest and Wealthiest High School Award,' though it may seem like it. This marks the fifth consecutive year the Tigers have won, and no school has won more since the creation of the competition in 2000."

OK, technically, the honor is called the "All-Sports Award." As the story says, it has been given out every year since 2000 by the Register. The winning schools, the newspaper says, are determined "based on the performance of athletic teams in all sports." But when you stop and think about it, you realize that the award might as well be based on the demographics of the student body, because those demographics have helped hand the award to Valley every year since 2003.

Before we start, let me make clear that the case we will be building here is not against Valley High School. Valley athletics have an indisputable tradition of excellence. To piss on the school for winning championships is to suggest that the Valley kids should be taking a dive out there. They shouldn't. They're good kids. My wife is a Valley alumna, for pete's sake. No, the case we're building is against the Register's All-Sports Award itself.

First of all, let's talk about size. Valley has by far the largest enrollment of any Iowa high school, with about 1,950 students. That's about 15% larger (about 230 more students) than the next-closest competitor, Des Moines East. Does size matter? You bet it does. Because a huge student population allows a school's teams to draw from a significantly deeper talent pool.

Let's assume that athletic talent is fairly evenly distributed through the population (it isn't, obviously, but we're starting from the most basic concepts). For every 500 students, let's say there is maybe one player in a given sport who is a "10" on a ten-point scale. At progressively lower talent levels, there are more and more students. Out of 500 kids, there are, say, two 9s, three 8s, five 7s, eight 6s, twelve 5s, and so on. In putting together a 20-player team, then, Valley has access to four 10s, eight 9s, and enough 8s to fill out the roster. Valley's team average is 8.4, and the median player, the one in the middle of the team, talent-wise, is a 9.

Nearby Urbandale High School, meanwhile, is similar in a lot of respects to Valley but has fewer than half as many students. So it must make do with maybe one or two 10s, three 9s, five 8s, eight 7s and some 6s. Urbandale's team average is just a little lower at 8.2 -- but the median player is only a 7, two full levels below Valley's. Anyone who knows sports acutely would tell you that the median is more important that the average, which is distorted by extremes. You don't win championships with your stars. You win them with your role players.

So Valley's size alone gives it an advantage toward winning the Register award every single year. But demographics is more than just raw population numbers. The reason Valley is so large is that it's the only conventional public high school in the West Des Moines district, which covers more than 60,000 people in West Des Moines, Clive and portions of Urbandale and Windsor Heights. That territory also constitutes the greatest concentration of wealth in the state. Does money matter? You bet it does. Because an affluent student population also allows a school's teams to draw from a significantly deeper talent pool.

Simply put, rich kids (and upper-middle-class kids) have a leg up on poor kids (and working-class kids). In a richer school, students in the aggregate will have more free time to pursue sports of all kinds, far more opportunity to pursue niche sports such as tennis and golf, and more parks and recreational places in which to pursue them. In a poorer school, more students will have jobs (to help support the family, not just to get spending money), more will be unable to afford specialized sporting equipment, and more will be watching siblings before and after school. In those poorer schools, a certain portion of the student body couldn't play sports even if they wanted to, and many are limited in the sports they can participate in.

That's not to say poorer schools can't and don't field teams that compete at a high level. They do. The catch is: They can't do it in every sport. In any given school, rich or poor, the best basketball players will be playing basketball, the best football players will be playing football, because opportunities are present in those sports from a young age. It's the lesser sports -- the ones that colleges refer to as "non-revenue" sports -- where the competition between rich and poor schools breaks down completely. Thousands of kids in the western suburbs grow up exposed to golf, tennis, soccer, swimming, diving, volleyball. On Des Moines' east side ... not so much. Des Moines East can field a decent basketball team and a track team, of course, but how's their golf team? Their tennis team? Their swimming team?

This is key, you see, because the All-Sports Award depends on participation in "all sports." Friday's Register article includes a little sidebar about how Valley won the All-Sports title. In the past year's state tournaments, Valley teams were:

  • First in girls' swimming
  • First in girls' softball
  • First in girls' soccer
  • Second in boys' track
  • Third in boys' tennis
  • Third in boys' soccer
  • Fourth in boys' swimming
  • Fourth in girls' golf
  • Fifth in boys' golf
  • Seventh in girls' track
  • Semifinalists (third/fourth) in football
  • Semifinalists (third/fourth) in girls' basketball
It's a great record, and all the student-athletes at Valley have every right to be proud of their achievements. Again, nowhere in this post am I alleging that Valley athletes have any unfair or improper advantage on the field of play. However, the Register All-Sports Award rests on essentially unfair and improper criteria. You look at Valley's accomplishments, and you see that what won it the award were its golf teams, its swimming teams, its soccer teams, its tennis teams. When you have 2,000 students, you can have a competitive swim team and a competitive golf team and a competitive tennis team and a competitive soccer team. Other schools -- far smaller schools -- can't have them all. The pool just isn't deep enough.

(The Register award, it should be noted, is given out for three categories of schools: "small," those with 1-349 students; "medium," or 350-799 students; and "large," 800 or more. At the lower levels, no school has dominated year after year like Valley has. But those categories have an upper bound, and no school in them has a combined enrollment/affluence edge as stark as Valley's.)

If the award itself is so skewed, why does the Register even give it out? To understand that, it helps to understand a couple things about the media.

First, when people who don't work in the news media see something irrelevant, trivial or otherwise questionable dressed up as "news," they shake their head and ask, "Slow news day?" The answer is usually: Yes. For sports news, you don't get much deader than August. All that's going on is baseball. If it weren't for Shawn Johnson of West Des Moines(!) slaughtering the opposition in international gymnastics, the Register wouldn't have anything to write about at all. (Besides another preview on the Hawkeyes' backup punter, of course.) So they fill column inches with a bogus award.

Second, you may or may not have noticed this, but community newspaper sports sections aren't exactly fonts of creativity. That's why every other sports headline is a brainless pun on someone's name: "Sabbatini has Tiger by the tail." Get it? Cuz his name is Tiger, and tigers have tails! I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that someone in the Register hierarchy saw that some other newspaper somewhere was giving out an annual high-school all-sports award and thought, "Hey, why don't we do that?" But they never stopped to think through the criteria. In California, or New York, or Illinois, or even Missouri, you have a lot of large schools from different population centers that can be measured against each other on a roughly equal basis. Iowa does not. Rating high schools according to the Register criteria is always going to be comparing apples to oranges to plums to cherries to grapes, because there are so few teams with apples.

Valley athletes deserve congratulations for a lot of things, but not this.

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