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The road to Shiloh 

How a game got big.

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One can't quite call it The Game of the Century ? though one is tempted ? nor claim that The Whole World Was Watching. One can in good conscience say that the game between Shiloh Christian and Berryville on Sept. 25 was A Game of Unusual Significance in Arkansas High School Football, and that school administrators and coaches across the state were keenly interested. The memory of last year's game between these two teams was on everybody's mind.

Shiloh won that 2008 game 65-0. An embarrassing margin of defeat, to be sure, but Berryville Superintendent Randy Byrd says that it wasn't the score so much …

“In the fourth quarter, when it was 58 to 0, they threw the ball on fourth down instead of punting. I felt like that was a coach's call and not the kids'. The night before, we saw the same behavior at a junior high game. I think the score was 38 to 0. They had the ball within 20 yards of our goal line with 29 seconds left. They called a timeout to set up another score. … It was the sportsmanship we saw at the two games that caused a lot of the issues.”

Like many other public school administrators, Byrd already believed that private schools like Shiloh, a Baptist school at Springdale, had unfair advantages over public schools like Berryville, in football and other areas. The poor sportsmanship he believed he saw from Shiloh stirred him to do something about it. “Not all private schools behave that way,” he says, “but we couldn't single out Shiloh.” (Though Shiloh incurred more ill will later in the season when it beat Gentry 70 to 3 and Clarksville 84 to 14 on its way to the Class 4A state championship.)

Byrd proposed a new rule to the Arkansas Activities Association, which regulates high school athletics in Arkansas. Public schools would continue to compete against private schools during the regular season, but not in the playoff games that decide state championships. The 28 or so private schools of varying sizes that belong to the AAA would have their own playoffs. No longer could a Shiloh or a Pulaski Academy be declared an overall state champion.

Though it may sound extreme, such arrangements already have been adopted in some states, and a few states even separate the public and private schools entirely. People who don't follow high school football closely ? and that's most people who don't have children or grandchildren in high school ? may not be aware that friction between public and private schools has been growing for some time, and not just in Arkansas. National rankings of the top high school teams around the country seem to contain a disproportionate number of private, church-related schools. On Sept. 11 in Florida, Chaminade-Madonna, a Catholic school, beat Pompano Beach, a public school, by a score of 83 to 0, spurring more debate of the private v. public question.

The specter of recruiting looms large in these controversies, though it's seldom spoken of openly and specifically. There's a certain amount of innuendo, very little in the way of direct accusation. Asked if he thinks Shiloh recruits players, Byrd says, “I personally don't know of any case of recruiting.” But when he addressed an AAA meeting in August, he said that 80 percent of the Shiloh student body participated in athletics, and that 17 Shiloh football players were on scholarship. (The AAA does not allow athletic scholarships. It does allow private schools to award scholarships based on financial need.) Byrd also cited Shiloh's remarkable record of winning state championships since its founding in 1976, a record that Shiloh itself displays on its web site. He added that private schools, which account for about 8 percent of the AAA membership, had won 25 percent of the football and basketball championships in the 2008-09 school year.

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