Several years ago my wife Jennifer and I were sitting in the Earlham School auditorium watching the junior high conference chorus festival. Since we enjoy music (almost) as much as sports, we weren’t passively listening and hoping it would be over soon. We were both in choirs in school and Jennifer has even achieved some degree of fame as a singer. (If you haven’t heard of her, that’s alright–she’s not that famous.) So we had a feel for what groups were good, which ones needed work–and, just like when we watch sports–we weren’t shy about offering up blunt critiques or praise among ourselves as appropriate. And frankly, some the choirs just weren’t very good. But, that’s okay—it was junior high and they all seemed to be trying hard and enjoying themselves to some degree.
(Keep going—this story really is about football eventually!)
Kristen was in the Earlham choir at that time and when it was their turn, they did fine. Jennifer and I weren’t keeping score or anything, but we are fairly competitive, so we determined that our choir was better than some and maybe not as good as a couple others. Eventually the choir from Des Moines Christian sang and they were amazing. If this had been a competition and not an exhibition, it would have been a blowout. A few days earlier, our boys basketball team had just been beaten soundly by a very good DMC team. As we were clapping for their choir, I turned to Jennifer and whispered sarcastically, “Great. First basketball, and now they’ve kicked our ass in choir, too.”
Whether its choir or sports DMC always provides a good competitive test for our school. I like that—it’s important for teams to find out exactly how good they are. Some of Earlham’s teams have fared well against theirs and some haven’t. When we do lose, some fans and parents tend to do the wink-wink, nudge-nudge thing and say, “Well, they recruit, you know.” I guess I don’t really know. It kind of depends on the perception of what that word means, but I’m pretty sure they aren’t “recruiting” 8th grade singers.
DMC is one of those schools that always seem to be good at everything because—from my point of view—they work hard and do things the right way; not because they circumvent the rules or play by a different set. Are they recruiting good players year after year; or, are they creating them? I admire the schools—public or private—that have continued athletic success. Every school has an opponent or two like that on their schedules every year. I featured a few in my book: Harlan, Solon, Decorah. That’s just a few on a long list. Many folks from rival schools end up hating teams like this and I just can’t go there.
Hate them or admire them, for the private schools the inevitable “yeah, but…” always comes back to the theory that they have an unfair advantage because they recruit, they have more money, they “play down” in class, etc., etc. This long-held notion cropped up in some abundance last fall during and after the Iowa high school football playoffs. Of the 24 schools that made it to the Dome, seven of them were private schools, and the private schools nabbed state titles in five of the six classes. That last one is a bit of a statistical anomaly, but plenty of these schools are no strangers to deep playoff runs. Schools like St. Albert, Gehlen, Dowling, Heelan, Beckman, Newman, Kuemper, and Don Bosco seemingly always pepper the brackets. Iowa City Regina hasn’t lost a game since 2009, has collected four straight state titles, and hasn’t really been challenged much. They have won their eight games at the Dome in that span by an average of three touchdowns.
With dominance like that, it’s easy to understand why many people think that something in the world of public versus private high school football is askew. So…do private schools have some advantages that public schools do not? I think they definitely have advantages—but are they unfair? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I’m going to examine the public/private debate further in future posts this spring.
In the meantime, the line from a 1980s shampoo commercial comes to mind: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” Or, let’s not hate schools – public or private – just because they win a lot of football games.