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In Florida, high school football goes pro

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Depending on who you ask, American high school football is a religion, a venerable rite of passage or a dangerous haven for violence.

But along Florida’s Suncoast — where tennis stars like Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova were groomed for the big time starting well before puberty — it is becoming something else entirely, writes Jeré Longman in The New York Times: a booming new industry.

Bradenton has been home to high-pressure incubators for junior athletes since the mid-1970s when Nick Bolletieri pioneered the sector with his famous Bolletieri Tennis Academy. Sports and entertainment company IMG, sensing a possible mega trend, bought the school in 1987 and haven’t looked back since.

In the world of sports-dominated educational facilities, writes, Longman:

IMG is at the forefront. It is trying to enhance its academy brand with football, perhaps the most visible sport. And it is applying a business model to the gridiron that has long been profitable for tennis and has expanded to golf, soccer, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, and track and field. The academy has nearly 1,000 students from more than 80 countries enrolled in prekindergarten through 12th grade and postgraduation. About half the students are international.

Though IMG Academy has fielded a varsity football team for only three seasons and, as an independent school, is ineligible to play for a Florida state championship, it is stocked with six of the nation’s top 100 senior recruits. The roster has players from 21 states and six countries. This month, IMG flew to Texas for a game. On Saturday, it traveled to New Jersey and defeated another power, Bergen Catholic High School, 59-47.

The full cost of tuition and boarding for a year of football at IMG Academy is $70,800, although need-based financial assistance is available.

The move into football is a significant one. In the past, such academies focused on niche sports —  tennis, lacrosse and golf, mostly — where affluent children would compete with one another for top spots in a domain largely outside the general public’s gaze.

The shift into America’s most visible athletic crucible, writes Longman, has garnered the attention of that public — and the elected officials that represent them. Big-time money and national scrutiny have followed.

IMG officials are upfront about their profit motive. And they have been backed financially by state lawmakers. They justify the assistance by citing the academy’s economic impact to the region in training more than 12,000 athletes yearly from the youth level to the pros and in hosting numerous amateur and professional sports competitions.

Although it is private, IMG Academy has received more than $7 million from the Florida state budget over the past two years, according to news accounts. An additional $2 million was pledged by lawmakers in June but was then vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

IMG officials say they are taking the attention in stride and in fact will seek more.

“We run a business,” said Chip McCarthy, a co-managing director of IMG Academy. “We call it sales and marketing. Some people call it recruiting. We’re promoting our program. If you look at any private school that emphasizes sports, they’re typically doing it to promote their school. A lot are trying to survive. You’re not going to curtail that.”

McCarthy added: “With us, we’re very honest about it. We recruit nationally, we don’t recruit in Florida, and we’re probably the only school in the country that admits it.”

Not everyone in high school athletics speaks about the academy with such aplomb, according to Longman.

Some Florida schools refuse to play IMG Academy. Some coaches from other states are upset that IMG has poached players whom they developed. And there are accusations — vehemently rebutted by IMG — that it is merely a football factory where “student” is a neglected companion in the term “student-athlete.”

Other officials express fear that football might follow the path of high school basketball, which many feel has been corrupted by so-called diploma mills and the heavy influence of club teams and recruiting middlemen.

“We just wouldn’t play them,” George Smith, the athletic director at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, said of IMG Academy. He won six state championships and two national championships as the St. Thomas Aquinas football coach. “They’re exactly like all these basketball schools, except they’re a football school.”

Mickey McCarty, who has coached three state championship teams at Neville High School in Monroe, La., and who lost a senior receiver to IMG Academy days before fall practice began, said the academy seemed less a traditional football team than a showcase for individual talent.

“It sounds to me like they’re playing for self, to be promoted and recruited, which takes away everything we stand for,” McCarty said.

Senior quarterback Shea Patterson‘s circumstances seems to encapsulate the situation perfectly.

The players at IMG and their families consider [the traditional high school sports] approach to be antiquated. For [SheaPatterson, a quarterback who won state championships the previous two seasons at a high school in Louisiana, IMG Academy is serving as a finishing school.

Patterson said he transferred to IMG in June to work on his speed, strength and conditioning. He plans to graduate in December, enroll for the spring semester at the University of Mississippi and challenge for the starting quarterback position there next fall as a freshman.

“It’s definitely a professional decision,” he said.

Or as John Bachman, Patterson’s coach for the last two years, put it: “It’s all driven by money, and you can’t beat money.”

Whether that’s true or not, one thing is for certain — for the foreseeable future, IMG isn’t going anywhere. It might even be a keyhole into the future of high school sports.

Bachman said he felt conflicted about Patterson’s decision to transfer to IMG Academy. Parents should have the right to choose the best school for their children, he said. If he had a son of Patterson’s skill, Bachman said, he would have considered the same move.

“I’m a liar if I said I wouldn’t have,” Bachman said.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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