(ALLEN, Texas) — To say that football is a big deal in Texas is a bit like saying it snows in Alaska.
“There’s a long tradition in both film and novels of how important high school football is in Texas,” said Tom Palaima, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and a former representative of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a faculty organization that monitors sports expenditures on college campuses.
Friday Night Lights, anyone?
Still, it’s hard to imagine that a high school would invest $59.6 million in its football stadium. But that’s precisely the cost of the sparkling new Eagle Stadium at Allen High School, in Allen, Texas, a Dallas suburb. The stadium — which boasts a video scoreboard, artificial turf, a multi-level press box, a weight room, a wrestling room and seats for 18,000 — opened Thursday with a pep rally and introduction of the 2012 team. The new season begins on Aug. 31.
While students and their parents seem to be thrilled with it, some Texans are less impressed. Yes, the stadium was funded with a $119 million bond package approved by voters in May 2009 — passing with 63.66 percent of the vote, no less. (The bond issue also includes $36.5 million for a transportation, maintenance and nutrition center and a $23.3 million auditorium for the district’s performing arts programs.)
But does a high school need a $60 million football stadium, especially when state education budgets are so slim? Never mind that the median household in Allen is $95,000 per year, almost double the national average.
“It’s lamentable that people want to do this with their own money and the money of their community,” said Palaima. ”Young men and women are now understanding at the age of 8, 9, and 10 that their way to get into a good college or university is by participating in sports and not putting a focus on academics.”
Allen High principal Steve Payne disagreed. “We are an exemplary high school,” he told ABC News. “I think our first class facilities tell everybody that we have first class academics and first class kids. Without them, we wouldn’t have those first class facilities.”
U.S. News and World Report ranked the 5,700-student school 99th out of 1,842 schools in the state of Texas, and 1,219th out of 21,776 schools nationwide. Eighty-five percent of students go on to college, said Payne.
Allen football coach Tom Westerberg told Fox Sports Southwest that most of the negative publicity comes from people outside of town. “I don’t really worry about that a whole lot,” he said. “We’ve drawn quite a few people to the games and I think for the majority of the big games it will be full.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Jacqueline Howard, CNN