Thursday, May 03, 2007

Japan: The Newspaper War behind the High School Baseball Scholarship Fiasco

Needs a lot of editing. But life is waiting for me out there. With behind-schedule work. Corrections welcome.

Perks rampant for high school ballplayers, accuses the English language Yomiuri headline. Too bad for those of you who can't read the Japanese version of the high school baseball scholarship fiasco. There, you can see that this is the biggest sports story in Japan, except for (for the Yomiuri) the daily exploits of the Yomiuri Giants baseball team. Moreover, the Japanese language articles are highly sympathetic to the students and schools, and mostly blame the High School Baseball Association for the fiasco and urge it to reconsider its crackdown on the violators. They also point out that the board has punished the schools and the unwitting students, but has decided not to assess any sanctions on any of the national leadership, including the chairman.

The Yomiuri's anger is understandable, since (as the linked Japanese language article points out) these and other high school schools also have similar "perks", typically tuition waivers and, where necessary, free room and board, for every other sport of significance, at least to the school concerned. In some cases, the amateur associations works closely with selected high schools (and middle schools) to train and educate elite athletes in the hopes that they would go on to win world championships and Olympic medals. Professional soccer has practically adopted the varsity soccer system alongside their own youth teams, and high school players can be allowed to play for their schools and professional teams simultaneously, with no obligation to go on to play for the same teams when they graduate. All this with the blessing of the Japan Football Association.

High school baseball's Avery Brundage amateurism extends to appearance. A strict code, epitomized by the uniformly shaved heads, metaphorically puts baseball in another era altogether.

Why, then, should baseball be any different? In the first place, unlike the rest of high school sports, which come under the umbrella of the All Japan High School Athletic Federation, baseball is ruled by the autonomous Japan High School Baseball Federation.

JHSBF has 30-35 directors on its board, who are supposed to be elected by the board of councilors. (The JHSBF website says 17 have been elected by the board of councilors, 7 have been elected regionally, and 4 have been "nominated/designated" by the chairman. The chairman and the 4 vice-chairmen are also supposed to be board members, but JHSBF does not mention who elected them. It seems at first glance that the JHSBF is in violation of its own by-laws, but is likely merely reality poking its head out of the façade.) The councilors consist of one nominee each from the 47 prefectural high school baseball associations, up to 33 (currently 32) elected by the board of directors, and up to 10 (currently 9) elected by the chairman. So, once a chairman has gained control of the board of directors, it would take a near-unanimous uprising on the part of the prefectural associations on the board of councilors for anything to even begin to happen against the wishes of the chairman and his allies. (It requires a 2/3 supermajority in both boards to terminate a director before his two-year term is up.)

And JHSBF has an ace up its sleeve. Two, actually. The arrival of Daisuke Matsuzaka, former high school baseball superstar, for the Red Sox has alerted American baseball fans to the incredible popularity of high school baseball in Japan. Indeed the two high school tournaments, one in early spring and the other in early summer, are the cash cows of JHSBF and the source of its stranglehold on high school baseball. For those of you over there, think the Final Four drama being played out all day and into the night, every day, to a standing-room-only crowd of 55,000 and a national TV audience, for a whole week. Twice a year. And one is sponsored by the Asahi, and other by the smaller national daily Mainichi. In contrast, the otherwise almighty Yomiuri does not have a tournament of its own. Even more galling to Yomiuri is the fact that the tournaments are so popular, it has no choice but to give them extensive daily coverage on the sports pages and even some ink on the front page. This is in stark contrast to the ironclad editorial control it exercises in professional baseball in favor of the Yomiuri Giants. In fact, my guess is that the Giants, the first professional baseball team in Japan, was started at least in part to counteract its two main media rivals' influence over amateur baseball. (Mainichi also sponsors the once-popular, annual corporate "amateur" tournament.)

So, what does Asahi have to say for it? Good question. It has a special web page that lets you browse all its articles on the fiasco, an improvement on the Yomiuri portal, but still only in Japanese. Asahi does write about the dismay of the schools and students affected. But it comes nowhere near the virtual campaign that Yomiuri is waging against the JHSBF anachronism, nor does it take the JHSBF leadership to task for letting things slide since it cracked down on scholarships in 2005, then only waking up to the problem after a scandal over under-the-table payments from professional baseball teams to amateurs and their handlers surfaced. Go figure.

So, armed with its control over the two tournaments and influence over all levels of governance, the JHSBF leadership has been able to continue to impose a worldview that was outdated many decades ago. It remains to be seen if Yomiuri will be able to force it to come out of its time capsule.

This leaves us with a minor question: If Yomiuri is so eager to slam the Asahi-Mainichi/JHSBF High school baseball cabal, why the Perks rampant for high school ballplayers headline? Well, the use of the term "ballplayer" and not "baseball player" is a dead giveaway that the translator/editor is an American. The US sports media teems with high school basketball stories about money and all sorts of goodies going to star players and the people around them, as well as the school hopping in search of fame and hopefully fortune. Thus, he instinctively went for the angle that he was familiar with.

At least that's my reading.

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