While high school football has never meant more to Alabama’s burgs, cities and rural hamlets, the flag is already being lowered to half-mast for the sport in honor of the way we have long idealized it — a bastion of community pride and loyalty, an incubator without peer from which boys are transformed into men.
It’s on its way to the hospital and may not come back alive — or at least not the way many of us remember it. Ominously, there might not be a cure.
While many communities still foam with joy when a football is kicked skyward on Friday nights, quicksand is forming under the fields due to the transfer portal and riches from NIL (name, image and likeness) deals, which Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin recently declared is “legalized cheating.”
Depending on which generation you’re from, the reaction is to either shovel dirt onto a grave or dollars into a bank account or ignore the stark truth — high school football, while always a money-maker, is mimicking the big business of college football, which in reality is semi-pro football.
Those who believe it is only a problem for larger states and schools had their naivety splayed open when four-star edge rusher Sterling Dixon opted to transfer from Mobile Christian to Spanish Fort for his senior season.
While many players have transferred, Dixon is the first high-profile football player from Mobile to make the move as an overt business decision. His father forthrightly said Dixon felt he needed a higher level of competition to better prepare for the rigors of SEC football at Alabama and improve his NIL value.
Rumors had abounded since the spring that Dixon was strongly considering a transfer. Dixon and his family may have seen his NIL valuation drop from $116,000 in June to $103,000 now, according to on3.com, and decided to do something about it, although you’d think playing at Alabama is the ultimate value enhancer.
“There is a trickle-down effect from things happening in college football right now,” Mobile Christian coach Ronnie Cottrell said. “This is going to happen a lot now. It’ll be the norm.”
Players have rights
But Dixon and many others who have done the same thing cannot be blamed for this. They are playing the game the way the rules say it can be played.
Dixon’s example is benign compared to the top national recruit in the 2024 class, who is now playing for his fourth high school.
Nomadic quarterback Dylan Raiola, who committed to Georgia in May, started in Texas, then went to two high schools in Arizona and is now at Buford High in Georgia, 50 miles from Athens. His NIL valuation is $890,000, according to on3.com.
We often hear complaints that today’s generation doesn’t want to work. But should we tell those who do, such as Dixon, that they can’t be rewarded financially until they turn pro, if they turn pro? Of 1 million high school players, only 2.6% play Division I football and a mere 1.5% of draft-eligible players make an NFL roster.
High school players cannot now be weaned from the example set by the college game. It’s unfair to expect players to remain at a school and not seek to improve their chances of an NIL windfall — in college or high school — when many coaches swim in cash and change addresses like they’re in a witness protection program.
We have a free-market society and the shelf life of elite athletes capable of reaching the NFL is short, so it’s fair to make what they can while they can. Plenty of precocious kids who can’t throw or catch a ball have made $1 million in business ventures before graduating high school, so why not athletes?
If I’m a player who has grown up with bare pockets and can make six figures in an NIL deal, I’m going to do it. If that is your child, you would want the same for them.
Sickened by the atmosphere
“There’s no question everything has changed,” Baker coach Steve Normand said. “In our world in high school, we emulate the college world. It was started by the NIL and it was only a matter of time until bleeding down to us.”
There isn’t a big enough tourniquet to stop it, not that we must like what has happened.
UMS-Wright legend Terry Curtis — the state’s all-time winningest high school coach and the president of the Alabama Football Coaches Association — is sickened by the increasing lack of allegiance and the cash bombs being detonated among teenagers. For those reasons, he said he’s glad most of his historic career is behind him.
“Other than getting old, I’m so glad I’m on the back end of it,” Curtis said. “That’s not what high school football is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be the last pure part of the game. But parents and third parties are telling them there is a better opportunity to go do this or that.”
While there are many good things about the modern game — the unprecedented athleticism of the players who push imagination past its bounds and its increasingly coast-to-coast scope — I also mourn the loss of simpler times. Most coaches do too and wish all they had to do was coach.
Loyalty has been reduced to an arcane theory you can look up in a dictionary to learn its meaning — or what it used to mean.
“The whole sense of high school pride and loyalty has started to go to the wayside,” Normand said. “Going to the same school and playing for the same school your dad played for, wearing those same colors he did, those days are waning away.”
Players have the right to transfer within the rules but often find themselves swarmed by people who don’t believe the coach at their school should make do with who is in already in the halls.
“There were a lot of third-party persons who were involved in wanting Sterling to play for their team — parents and players, not coaches of the schools themselves,” Cottrell said.
One coach who requested anonymity said every team in Mobile County has transfers. Normand himself said he has lost seven players to transfers since the spring and only two have transferred in.
Radical shift in priorities