Teenage football players today are the rope in an ideological tug of war over the relevance of high school football as we have known it.
Most sports fans are at least vaguely aware of 7-on-7, a no-tackle, passing-only version of football that in recent years has grown from a fun way for skill position players to hone their skills in the offseason into its own commercial branch of the sport. What has gotten less attention — until the Washington Post dug into it — is that a great many high school and college football coaches think 7-on-7 is a breeding ground for corruption such as the FBI is investigating in college basketball, and orients players away from the team concept of high school football to a self-centered endeavor, as is the case in summer basketball.
Some are drawing the proverbial lines in the sand.
“I will also never ever, ever have a recruiting conversation with a 7-on-7 coach,” [Stanford coach David] Shaw said. “I talk to high school coaches, counselors and parents.”
Shaw may not have the luxury of his principles for much longer. The fact is, 7-on-7 is here, growing, and not going away. Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher is playing nice with the 7-on-7 guys, and if it looks like he’s killing it in recruiting, the masses will be sure to follow.
The Washington Post cited Arizona State’s Todd Graham as one that has changed his tune.
Three years ago, Graham felt differently. He didn’t like the idea of 7-on-7 coaches invading the “sacred” space of the high school coach, having to build relationships with 7-on-7 directors to recruit players.
But as 7-on-7 gained momentum, Graham, a former head coach at Texas football powerhouse Allen High, started to understand the shift he needed to make to stay atop the recruiting game.
“If you want to recruit the elite player, you have to be involved in it,” Graham said. “You have to know the powers in all-star 7-on-7, whether you like it or not.”
There is nothing wrong with 7-on-7, but it — fundamentally, speaking — is not football because it lacks football’s defining element, which is contact. In 7-on-7, the pass rush is only theoretical, it’s only a four-second timer. 7-on-7 isn’t popular as a spectator sport, and it’s pretty much useless except as training for real football. This distinguishes it from AAU basketball, which is simply basketball.
That’s not to say 7-on-7 isn’t fun. At the American Flag Football League training camp in Dallas last month, I watched guys who had played in Pro Bowls turn into little kids playing 7-on-7 flag football. And, really, who among us doesn’t want to throw it on every down anyway?
Participation numbers are growing in 7-on-7, and that’s a pretty good indication this is something kids like doing. But kids are also being sold the idea their football careers could hinge on the exposure they’ll get playing 7-on-7. As soon as football players and their parents believe that en masse, there’s no cramming 7-on-7 back into the box.
All indications are that we’re near that point, if we haven’t reached it already. And that means there’s a power struggle underway about who gets to be the gatekeepers in high school football, who can be trusted, what is actually best for the kids, and who can get away with what.
7-on-7 poses no direct threat to high school football, but it does necessarily reduce the significance of the high school team and the high school coach in the life and career of a high school football player, and that’s worth thinking long and hard about.