Today the New York Times had a story entitled High School Football, Inc., in which it described a high-level assembly line to build professional and D-1 football players out of the best teenaged stock in the country.
My knee jerk reaction is to condemn this institution as yet another example of all that is wrong with youth sports. But I stopped myself and decided to re-examine my beliefs and to question them.
First, off, as you’ve heard me say, I have put aside the romantic notion that children’s sports should be sacrosanct, free of capitalistic or corporate greed, an even playing field upon which our kids can learn to work with and against each other in a safe and predictable way so that they may become good humans. A place where kids can have simple fun, and not be stressed to perform. I’ve forced myself to surrender this notion, because, mostly, those days are gone. Youth sports cannot exist in a vacuum and they don’t. There is much that is capitalistic, greedy, venal, and wrong about youth sports culture. Much of youth sports culture is stressful for kids. And that is wrong, but it is what it is.
Yet I still assert that youth sports are worth participating in. Youth sports are the only place where young people are taught the fitness habits that will last them a lifetime. I do not need to cite the depressing statistics regarding obesity and sedentary lifestyle that are making today’s generation the first one in modern history that is predicted to NOT live as long as their parents. For many kids, their sports teams are where their best friendships are made, and team sports in particular are the realm where our young people are best taught leadership and cooperation. They don’t learn to work together in school or at church or in any other organized activity in the same effective way that they do in sports. Also, participation in sports limit the types of bad decisions and habits that our kids are going to get into during their formative years. I won’t bore you with data, but suffice it to say that it shows that participation in youth sports decreases the rates of:
• illegal drug use
• alcohol consumption
• teenaged pregnancy
Participation in youth sports also increases scholastic performance and sociability. It’s clear that the more young people who play youth sports, the better it is for them, and our society.
In addition to our societal responsibility to raise humans who can function in and bring good things to the world, as parents, I think our most basic charge is to help our kids through childhood with the adoption of good values and basic habits, and then through adolescence and those teenaged years without lasting damage. Yes, we all want more than those things for our kids, but at its most base level, we as parents have to agree that these are our primary goals. And I submit that, still, even with its “travel team arms race” and hyper-capitalistic performance culture, the institution of youth sports is one that is helpful in accomplishing these goals.
So, the idea that IMG, a talent agency that’s become a sports behemoth, has created an assembly line for high-level sports performers should be a good thing, right? The more good players we develop, the more also-rans to chase and emulate them, right? Maybe all the youth football and hockey and baseball and lacrosse clubs in the country should emulate the IMG colossus to become more efficient at churning out high-level sports performers.
Well let’s take a look at that. The inherent mentality that IMG Inc. is selling is that champions can be manufactured though early preparation and specialization, professional coaching, and by having parents spend more and more money (tuition is $70K). A word about that $7oK: you can bet is not being borne by the top-level prospects, but rather all the also-rans who have parents who are either of great means, or are willing to mortgage the house to send a kid to a sports academy. The top kids, the ones that people in the youth sports business call “blue chips,” (yes, they really talk about your children that way) are not charged the same tuition, and sometimes even rewarded with various bonuses for choosing a particular school or club.
But back to that mentality that I mentioned above: This is a win-today mentality. Not a develop-for-tomorrow ethos. The whole business case for this sort of a team is reliant on its winning a lot more than it loses, regardless of what toll it takes on the players. Hence, this system creates a very bright line between the haves and have-nots, and virtually excludes not only middle-class and poor kids, but all children who do not hit puberty early. The Times story references a 6 foot 2 inch, 237 pound high school tight end who is considered the best in the country. Well, yeah, since he’s a full grown big man playing against half-grown boys, I’d expect so. However, just because he is big does not mean he is mature enough to handle the pressures of being a professional athlete (which is essentially what he is at IMG High). But it doesn’t matter whether or not this kid has a long and happy life. What matters is that he helps IMG win games tomorrow, next week, next month and that at the end of the season he is drafted by a pro or D1 team. Then, in his large wake will flow hundreds of other fat checkbook families into IMG.
This is the system that leads kids to burn-out and quit, often right in the middle of the dangerous teenaged years where all those other choices become alternatives to sports. Can’t play hockey? Maybe I’ll just get high… This is not good for them, or our society. Of course, that’s just my opinion. I’d be curious to know what you think. Should youth sports culture be a learning environment that’s open to all, or an elite athlete talent mill? And is it possible for the two philosophies and institutions to effectively co-exist?