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Utah's football obsession

Athletics has much to offer a young man or woman, from discipline to self-confidence to an appreciation for hard work and cooperation. Organized sporting events also can galvanize a community, especially a small town.

But those good things can sour quickly when winning becomes all-consuming.

A four-part series in this newspaper, the last installment of which runs today, showed convincingly that high school football is coming dangerously close to an unhealthy obsession in some parts of the state. To some, it already has become unhealthy. Those are the athletes who abuse supplements or use steroids to get an unfair advantage. They are the ones who risk debilitating injuries to keep going when hurt, and they are the parents who shop around for a high school that has the best chance to win games, with no thought toward their child's academic needs.

In short, anything that makes winning football games the most important thing in life is a sure road to misery later.

As the series showed, however, it would be unfair to condemn entire groups of participants or even state laws, such as the one that allows students to attend any high school that has room. That policy leads to charges of recruiting or team-shopping. But it also allowed one worried mother to find a football program that would provide the tutoring needed to help her troubled son rescue his grades.

Open enrollment can be an important tool for parents in Utah. It allows them some measure of choice, giving them an opportunity to find a school that best fits the needs of their child. When people use it for academic reasons, or to take advantage of music or fine-arts offerings, few complain. But athletics holds such a level of importance in society that the 28 athletes who transferred to play at Skyline High School this year, for example, seems out of line.

However, that is more a reflection on the culture then on the law that allows it. In fact, while coaches and administrators do in some cases feed the obsessive nature of sports, most of the ills associated with high school football could be cured by the wise guidance of parents and others who can keep things in perspective.

That's one of the main lessons to be gleaned. The culture isn't likely to change. As in most states, football here has become a year-long pursuit, with high school players concentrating solely on it rather than trying their hand at other sports during the year.

It takes a level head to realize that for every 10 high schools in Utah, only one athlete will make it to a college-level team, and that the chances of becoming a professional are microscopic. But the athlete who understands this will be more eager to absorb all the good that sports has to offer, without risking long-term health for momentary glory.