Monday, February 24, 2020
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The diverse Friday night lights in Alabama

RAINBOW CITY, Ala. (Aug. 31) — Just a quick drive from the Talladega Motor Speedway, in a place where big Christian churches can number three along a half-mile stretch of highway, two high school football games were played under the Friday night lights: a home game for the Titans of Gadsden City High School and an away game for the Purple Devils of Ragland High School. Both teams lost, to Oxford and Westbrook Christian, respectively, but the settings for the games couldn’t have been more different.


After week 2 of the season, then, both teams fall to 0-2, and both their opponents tonight go to 2-0, with Oxford currently holding a No 10 ranking in the state on MaxPreps. With such a team coming to Gadsden for a rivalry game, as this was, the stadium was packed with thousands of fans from both teams. Meanwhile the bleachers at Westbrook Christian, a few short miles away, were sparsely populated with a few hundred people combined.

The differences could also be seen in the non-football student participants: Gadsden’s marching band is several hundred strong, while Ragland’s band, which made the short trip to Westbrook, since Westbrook didn’t bring a marching band, numbered about 30 musicians and auxiliary marchers. They performed well, mostly standing in place given the early stages of the season, playing a few songs from the band Styx:

  • Grand Illusion / Renegade
  • Too Much Time on My Hands
  • Come Sail Away

Band director Al DeMent has been with the school since 2007, and he says he’s the longest serving band director in the history of the Ragland Band program. But if the band isn’t enough of an indicator how small this school is, the size of the faculty tells the whole story: the Saint Clair County Board of Education lists only 15 teachers at the school, including two science teachers, three English teachers, and three math teachers.

In athletics, Alabama and a few dozen states allow private schools, which don’t limit enrollment to students who live within a certain geographical boundary, to compete with public schools in the state tournament for the high school athletic association. But unlike other states, where there’s only one high school athletic association, Alabama actually has two. One’s for just private schools that aren’t in the other association, and one’s for public schools—the Alabama High School Athletic Association, or AHSAA—and has some private schools as members.

Because of the recruiting differences between public schools that use geographical boundaries and private schools that don’t, the AHSAA multiplies the enrollment at Westbrook Christian by 1.5 when determining enrollment-based classifications for state tournaments. As a result, while Westbrook may have the enrollment of other Class 2A public schools in the state, the football team actually competes against schools in higher classes for state tournaments. (Gadsden is in Class 7A, the top class, while Oxford is in 6A.)

This report, then, effectively updates the record for Alabama, given a change in the multiplier from 1.35 to 1.5 and the understanding that some private schools in the state don’t compete in the AHSAA tournaments but instead use a separate association for Christian schools, the Christian Football Association, which sponsors 6- and 8-man football programs at several Christian schools.

In that sense, Alabama is somewhat of a hybrid, hosting a separate organization with national Christian roots for a state championship while still allowing several private schools to compete with public schools in the AHSAA’s state championship series.

On the one hand, competing in state tournaments with public schools gives schools like Coosa Christian and even the more rural Westbrook, which is situated inside a neighborhood, a visibility they wouldn’t get in the CFA. This has led to some success in college football, notably Westbrook Christian’s Brodie Croyle, one of the quarterbacks for the Alabama Crimson Tide in their 2002 national championship year.

But on the other hand, it means schools like Ragland, which is about as rural as Westbrook, have to compete against schools that have a clear recruiting advantage. And the games end up with scores like tonight’s, 28-6.

“I think there are valid arguments and statistics that prove it is not a level playing field,” student reporter Jake Heilman at Forest Hills Central High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, quoted a coach at the school as saying about public and private schools competing. “Now would it be an ideal situation if we made a private school league? I think there would still be issues, but there are issues right now. I certainly think something needs to be looked at.”

In Michigan two seasons ago, a petition was circulating to ask the state’s high school athletic association to separate the private schools and give public schools in the state a tournament all their own. The bigger question as to leveling the playing field while still affording private schools the visibility they get from state tournaments remains open. Alabama’s compromise has produced noteworthy college players and occasional blowouts, but as seen in the Gadsden City game tonight, blowouts happen even between two huge public schools.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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