Beware the Military-High School Football Complex Why is the military sponsoring so many high school football games?

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

The U.S. Army All-American Bowl, an annual high school football all-star game, won’t take place until next January 7. But organizers began announcing rosters during the broadcast of last winter’s contest.

The early commitment process gave the sponsor a year to promote the players, including stars from local powerhouses Good Counsel, H.D. Woodson, and Friendship Collegiate, to college football recruiters. And it gave the players, all rising seniors and likely big men on their respective campuses, the same amount of time to promote the Army to classmates.

Brian Lepley, public-affairs officer for U.S. Army Accessions Command in Fort Knox, Ky., and a spokesman for the Army All-American Bowl, says the all-stars give recruiters access to the rest of the student body.

“We realize that these players, none of them are going in the Army,” he says. “All of them get a scholarship and go to college. But we bring the parents and coaches in, and this is for the other young men at their high schools. We’re not trying to exploit football. We’re using interest in football as an entrée to let young people know that, hey, we’re the Army. A theme for the All-American Bowl is teamwork, and with football and strength and physical fitness, we can get to young people who maybe weren’t thinking about the Army.”

The Army says the All-American Bowl and events related to the game now make up its biggest annual outreach program.

The Army’s high school all-star game has been around for a decade. Future pros Adrian Peterson, Mark Sanchez, and Tim Tebow, among others, have donned black or gold jerseys to play in the game. Until recently, it was the only major venue for high school football stars to perform before a national audience.

But now there are several such talent showcases. And football isn’t the only link between them. There’s also military sponsorship.

Last month, for example, more than 1,000 athletes gathered at Warhill Sports Complex in Williamsburg, Va., for Top Gun University—a training camp for elite high school football players that’s also sponsored by the Army.

And there’s the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl, another all-star contest, set to be played in Phoenix on Jan. 3. It’s sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps. In July, the Corps held a tryout camp in Baltimore for top prep players from our region. Those who didn’t make the cut can still participate alongside hundreds of others in the Proving Ground, a giant skills test à la the NFL Combine. The Proving Ground events are sponsored by the Marines, too.

The Marines are also one of the four featured sponsors of the Under Armour All-American Bowl, yet another nationally televised high school football all-star game. It takes place on Jan. 5 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Locally, the Marines’ Baltimore Recruiting Station this spring helped underwrite the U.S. Marine Corps Passing League–Maryland, an event featuring seven-on-seven teams from more than a dozen Maryland high schools. The tournament was co-promoted by a group called the Sports Flash, described in publicity materials as a manager of “marketing campaigns that target high school student-athletes, their peers, parents, and coaches for military recruiting forces around the country.” Because the Corps was funding the tournament, the entry fee that participating teams usually must pay for such competitions was waived, making it an attractive destination for coaches who’d been looking to get their players a summer workout on a tight budget.

On Sept. 9, the inaugural Patriot Classic will kick off at the U.S. Naval Academy’s stadium in Annapolis. The six-game series will feature some of the top local and national high school squads, including DeMatha, Gilman, and Calvert Hall. Organizer Tony Kennedy says each contest will be dedicated to a different branch of the military (the Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Coast Guard, and National Guard), and that the games will be used to showcase “the immense role that the military play in our lives.”

There’s nothing new about the concept of using football to promote the armed services. But for most of the past century, a college event, the Army–Navy game was enough. It was rarely the football that made that matchup attractive: Only twice since 1963 have Army and Navy faced off when both had a winning record.

Still, the game served as a great advertisement for our military. Each November, the nation got to watch two teams loaded with scrappy, undersized guys with heart-tugging backstories go at it as the fittest and soberest student bodies in all the land cheered them on. Who wouldn’t want to be allied with either rival?

But that college showcase isn’t the only game that matters to recruiters anymore. What changed, says University of Washington public-health professor Amy Hagopian, is that the military decided to start pursuing high school students in their own environment.

Hagopian co-authored a controversial paper published in the January 2011 issue of the American Journal of Public Health that advocates banning military recruiting in high schools on the basis of child protection and common decency. Hagopian’s paper says that the United States is one of only two members of the United Nations that will not sign on to the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Somalia is the other.) Among the reasons our country’s leaders object to the convention, she says, because in our high schools kids under 18 are “compulsorily recruited” into the military, which puts us in conflict with Article 2 of the Optional Protocol of the UN edict.

Hagopian, who became a target of the right when she described high school military recruiters’ tactics as “predatory grooming” in her AJPH paper, says she started battling high school recruiting a decade ago, when she was PTA president at Seattle’s Garfield High School. She traces the boom in military recruiting at high schools to the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Section 9528 of that measure, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush, held that all high schools “shall provide, on a request made by military recruiters or an institution of higher education, access to secondary school students[’] names, addresses, and telephone listings.”

“The No Child Left Behind Act was a back door for military recruiters,” says Hagopian.

Then came the Sept. 11 attacks and the launching of two wars that are still hot, making the recruiters’ job both more urgent and tougher. Within a few years of No Child Left Behind’s passage, the Army was all over high school football. In the “School Recruiting Program Handbook,” published in 2004 by the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, recruiters are advised to, among other things “cultivate coaches,” especially in August, when football practice begins, and to “volunteer to assist in leading calisthenics” at the summer workouts. That should help the recruiters to buddy up to “influencers” such as “the captain of the football team,” and other “athletes...who can help build interest in the Army among the student body.”

Marine Corps recruiters started focusing on high school football, too, probably for the same reason their Army peers were: They found out it works. In a 2008 story about how the Corps was meeting its enlistment quotas, the Wall Street Journal’s Yochi Dreazen quoted a recruitment officer touting the success of the Marines’ campaign to reach out to high school coaches by giving them free tickets to Nike-sponsored football clinics.

Lefty groups popped up to fight the influx of military recruiters in high schools. But any public or private school that didn’t cooperate with recruiters stood to lose federal funding. Megan Matson, a Marin County, Calif.-based activist and organizer of what was the most prominent anti-recruiter outfit, Leave My Child Alone, admits that she and the crowd she used to fight alongside have moved on to other causes. “Recruiting in the high schools still is an important issue,” Matson says, “but I’m sorry to say we haven’t done anything on it in a long time.”

Hagopian says that she’s not surprised that the Army and Marines are now pursuing sponsorships of high school football games and camps as aggressively as they pursue 11th-graders as enlistees.

“If you can link your product to something young people find attractive and sexy, you will sell more product,” she says. “Carmakers and beer makers know that. The military knows that. High school football is attractive and sexy. Those kids are sitting ducks for recruiters now.”

Meanwhile, the armed services do not serve as the primary sponsor of the original football/military-recruiting nexus: The Army–Navy game is now officially called “the Army–Navy game presented by USAA,” and is backed by a financial services company for military members and their families.

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