San Diego, Ca. — It is all grist for the running mill, this Nike Cross Nationals versus Foot Locker Cross Country Championships debate: Which high school championship is better? Which one will outlast the other? Who wins? Who loses? Goodness me. For as in all things running, it seems, the sport has found a way to engage in an internecine battle rather than work as one to take on the outside world which is where the real fight should be waged.
Of course, Nike and Foot Locker were once partners in the Foot Locker Championships until Nike departed to create Nike Team Nationals in 2004 after Foot Locker turned down the offer to add a team element in San Diego. The competition then really heated up when Nike introduced an individual championship and renamed its meet Nike Cross Nationals in 2007.
But whichever high school national cross country event you may prefer, NXN or Foot Locker, this much is true, the sport at the high school level has all the passion and energy that is missing at the professional level. And one important reason is the built-in rooting that comes from a fan-base that is actually attached to the athletes they care so deeply about.
As we all can recall, there is never a time in life when one’s passion runs as deep or is mined as pure as when first we give our heart and soul to “my” team. This connection first emerges around the age of ten when hero worship enters a young fan’s consciousness and he/she becomes aware of the local pro or college team that his/her father or mother follows closely.
But it is upon entering high school that the attachment takes the deepest root, for this is truly my team — think Friday Night Lights. From there college fandom forges loyalty into a lifelong bond. How many college friends first dress their newborns in the jerseys and memorabilia of their alma maters?
Now look at running. While this “my-school, my-team” sentiment is evident to a degree for cross country and track — given the history of the program and its level of excellence — with the lack of scholarships needed to field entire teams, the days of collegiate dual meets are long gone, and once runners, jumpers, and throwers graduate, any connection they have to something beyond themselves goes missing altogether. Instead it is every man jack for himself as they now perform for shoe company contracts.
Yet look at the running chat rooms today and see how deeply felt the passions run. Read how venomous are the arguments for or against Nike or Foot Locker’s particular national high school cross country offerings. Where is that passion for the pro side of the sport? Perhaps it isn’t there because there remains no context, no linking element to join fans to anything beyond the individual athlete.
That said, club teams, once the mainstays of post-collegiate athletics, have begun the long climb back to relevance. This weekend’s USATF Club National Cross Country Championships in Bend, Oregon were very well attended, if not widely covered.
As part of its PR outreach USATF continuously touts the USA has having the greatest track team in the world. But then there never is any competition staged to prove the validity of the boast; only the Olympics and World Championships keep a tally of national medal hauls. Yes, there is a USA versus The World format at the Penn Relays each spring, but that is a one-off meet at the beginning of the season that even includes double USA squads, one red, one blue. As such it doesn’t present the public with the binary choice — Yankees versus Red Sox — necessary to develop a true rooting interest over a calendar span.
And the world-wide Diamond League track tour essentially stages individual competitions that attempt to break world records in every event at every meet, but never links one event to another in any sort of fan-friendly narrative. As a result nobody actually wins a track meet. Instead numerous track and field events simply share a venue rather than a common purpose or goal.
As it turned out, NXN had the better girl’s race in 2013 with Alexa Efraimson, Elise Cranny and Sarah Baxter duking it out for the best-in-the-nation status, while Foot Locker staged a more compelling boy’s competition between juniors Grant Fisher of Grand Blanc, Michigan and Colbert, Washington’s John Dressel who fought a bare-knuckles brawl over the final 800 meters. Now if only those passions could be somehow harnessed and transferred to the pro game we might see the internet forums light up with the same level of energy and vitriol. And wouldn’t that be a welcome change?
Say what else you will about the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, it is without a doubt a wonderful reunion. Of course, with only ten years of history behind it NXN can’t dig as deeply into the past as Foot Locker can with its 35-year legacy. And while Nike brings in a large stable of its pro runners to mingle with and inspire the NXN teams and individuals in Portland, the combination of wintry weather and the scheduling of Foot Locker as the final high school cross country meet of the season keeps the NCAA coaches and previous year’s champions from joining the festivities.
You couldn’t toss a wayward Frisbee at yesterday’s Foot Locker meet without hitting one of the many college coaches who had flown in from around the nation to take in the one-stop-shopping recruiting opportunity. There was Marcus O’Sullivan from Villanova. Next to him searching for a race program was Tennessee’s J.J. Clark. After the meet Michigan’s Mike McQuire was chatting up one of the athletes and her mom.
Of course the balmy San Diego weather added immeasurably to their inclination to hang around Balboa Park and discuss the sport in all its facets. And afterwards a number of coaches and old friends gathered at ex-UCLA Coach Bob Larsen’s Mission Beach condo for pizza and beers.
Included in the bunch was Tulane’s Eric Peterson, who had been at UCLA for 16 years prior to taking the job with the Green Wave. Also on hand was current UCLA assistant, Forest Braden, local Grossmont College women’s coach Robert Claesson (where Coach Larsen had begun before taking the UCLA reigns), and Pat Tyson, the head coach at Gonzaga, who was the roommate of Steve Prefontaine while at Oregon. With so many old friends on hand, Pat called his former U. of O. coach Bill Dellinger to rub in the camaraderie and good cheer that Bill was missing up north.
After the pizzas were devoured, everyone crowded around the dining room table where Coach Larsen had laid out many old pictures that opened memory banks and loosened tongues, times that make such occasions a big part of why sport is the mortar that cements friendships for life.