Sunday, July 02, 2006

New Hampshire High School Football is NOT a Red Herring!

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on October 26, 2005.)

My dad informed me this weekend that the hunt for the granite championship of glory is already on, with the playoffs starting in a few weeks. And for the first time since I was in 10th grade, my high school is in it. That year we made it all the way to the state championship, so I’m very hopeful. But I'm also curious – how are local papers treating the playoffs?

Merrimack isn’t large enough to have its own daily. There’s a weekly freebie, called the Merrimack Journal, but that mostly carries stories about local bake sales and employees of the week. It’s put out by a small publishing company that creates freebies for towns all over southern New Hampshire. For the most part, we rely on the Manchester Union Leader, the Nashua Telegraph, and the Boston Globe (which of course couldn’t give a damn about New Hampshire sports).

But how impartial are those papers? Let’s find out.

But first, I should point out that New Hampshire, like every other state, groups its schools by size for sports. The largest schools are in Division I; the smallest schools are in Division V. Honestly, the only two divisions I care about are I and II, so those are the only two divisions I’ll be writing about. Merrimack High School – my school – plays in Division II and used to play in Division I. In each division, the top four teams advance to the playoffs. Now on to the papers.

The Union Leader is an interesting quirk of New Hampshire. Widely considered to be New Hampshire’s paper of record, it has a long history of radical conservatism. The late publisher William Loeb insisted on that principle, and guided it as such for decades. Some stellar examples of what his editorial board produced:
  • The lead editorial from one day’s edition in 1947 was a ringing endorsement of the Taft-Hartley act and was followed by an attack on the metric system, calling it a “communist-inspired plot” designed for the purpose of weakening capitalism and carried out by Pinko trade unions that wanted to topple the US government.
  • Loeb wrote that the Roots mini series was part of a communist conspiracy.
  • In 1964, the paper described the civil rights movement as directed from the Kremlin.
The paper has mellowed quite a bit in the last few years, if only because there really aren’t any more communists to watch out for. Well, that combined with Loeb’s death in 1981 and the death of his equally conservative wife Nackey who became publisher after him. It now has a strident libertarian bent, as befits a New Hampshire paper, and can be relied on for solid local coverage.

Since Manchester is the biggest city in the state and supports four Division I schools, it should come as no surprise that the paper focuses much of its attention of that division and the Manchester schools in it.

The lead high school football story focuses on the competition between five Division I teams for the last three playoff spots going into the final two weeks of the season. Pinkerton – a long time powerhouse in New Hampshire football – has clinched a playoff spot with a 7-1 record. Salem (6-1), Concord (5-2), Nashua North (5-3), Manchester West (4-3) and Manchester Central (4-3) are all in the scrum for the final spot. Nashua North – a brand new school last year, built to separate Nashua’s single mammoth high school that is now Nashua South – is probably starting to feel a little desperate, as it opened the season with five straight wins but has now dropped three in a row.

The Union Leader goes on to talk about Division II, beginning with how dominant Bishop Guertin is, currently 7-0 and riding a 20 game win streak. It’ll have home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Exeter (7-1) – who BG beat this past Saturday 10-7, with a field goal as time expired – has tied up the number two spot. My 6-2 Merrimack Tomahawks (we’re wicked PC) clinched third place this weekend when Dover beat Timberlane; John Habib, the writer, even calls the Merrimack team “physical.” Winnacunnet (4-3) currently holds the last playoff spot, but has to beat Portsmouth (2-5) and Spaulding (3-4) to do it.

All things considered, the paper is pretty even handed. There’s more space devoted to Division I schools, but given that The Union Leader is based out of Manchester, the city that is home to 40% of Division I schools in the state, it makes sense. Quite frankly, Habib said nice things about my school, so I’m cool with him.

I’d like to say the Nashua Telegraph has a similarly interesting history, filled with hair-brained accusations and conspiracy theories of the left or right wing varieties. Sadly, The Telegraph is just a solid, sometimes thoughtful, local paper without any history of idiot and insulting ideas. Pity.

Gary Fitz, the Telegraph’s high school football beat writer, manages to scoop Habib, at least in terms of math. Fitz looks at the records and upcoming schedules in Division I and figures out that Salem has already clinched a playoff spot in Division I. I have no doubt that Fitz yelled out “Suck it Habib!” when he realized he’d scooped his rival. Do sports reporters have to take some sports math course in college? Byzantine Playoff Algebra 101? Did Habib fail?

However, Fitz’s coverage is very Nashua-centric. And he isn’t even trying to be otherwise: “Locally we all want to know Nashua North’s chances.” Hey! Merrimack is next door! We’re not local? We don’t care about Nashua North!

In addition to Nashua North, the paper focuses on BG, which makes sense given that the parochial school is in Nashua. There is scant attention paid to the Division II playoff race that BG leads, as compared to Division I playoff race that Nashua North is participating in. It does make sense, though, given the closeness of the Division I race.

I appreciate Fitz’s insight into Salem’s playoff chances. That was some careful quadratic sports reporting. But he had hardly anything to say about Merrimack. I bet a third of the Telegraph’s readers are from Merrimack. It would have killed him to throw a little love our way?

Given my options, for New Hampshire high school football coverage, I’m going with that bastion of communist hysteria, the Union Leader. They give me high school football the way I like: complimentary of the Merrimack Tomahawks and Red-free.

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