I can’t speak for anyone else but I’m guessing that my childhood wasn’t too different from those of most of my middle-class contemporaries. I went to the local public schools, got OK grades and played several sports but none particularly well. I did dumb and wasteful things but survived them, went to a state university and eventually made a living doing something I liked. Chance as much as plan determined my course. That also wasn’t unusual, I daresay.
Fast forward to a present in which life has become less forgiving. Grades are important from the git-go as are scores on the standardized tests that have become ubiquitous (if they had them back when I don’t remember it). Children’s off-hours are crammed with lessons and activities designed to gild applications to the sort of colleges that promise a leg up toward career success. Be clear that I’m reporting here, not knocking; on a crowded planet where competition is global, such measures well might be necessary. As one of my kids once wrote in a grade-school essay, it’s “a doggy dog world” out there.
Even so, I’m sometimes caught short by a revelation of the extent to which childhood in the U.S. has been professionalized. One such came in September when I read in the New York Times about IMG Academy, a for-profit prep boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, set up to train boys and girls as young as 13 for athletics careers. It is, apparently, a heckuva place, offering the latest in coaching and training to aspirants in eight sports (football, baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, tennis, track and field and (huh?) lacrosse).
Its football team (unbeaten, natch) plays in a 5,000-seat stadium that has viewing suites and a jumbo video scoreboard. There’s a state-of-the-art weight room that puts many such college facilities to shame, and where out-of-season pros sometimes drop by to swap sweat with the kids. Drinking fountains in the gym offer Gatorade. Who could ask for more?
The academy is run by the company formerly known as International Management Group. It was begun in 1965 by Mark McCormack, a golf-loving Cleveland lawyer who parlayed his links contacts into agency deals that would enrich Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player and, in time, take many top-level athletes into a financial sphere that would make their on-field earnings incidental. IMG quickly morphed from agent to octopus, sponsoring, televising and otherwise packaging sporting events worldwide. Not a sparrow falls on the golf or tennis tours without its notice.
IMG got into the education biz in 1987 when it bought Nick Bollettieri’s tennis academy in Bradenton, already known for cranking out tennis prodigies. Foremost among those was Andre Agassi, who was shipped off to Bollettieri in 1983 at age 13. Agassi made it big all right, but, he’d later aver, that was despite as much as because of the school. In his candid 2009 autobiography “Open”, he described the place, variously, as a prison, boot camp or asylum where book-learning was optional if one played one’s cards right, and had less-than-flattering things to say about its founder.
Agassi ascribed his attraction to Brooke Shields, who’d been a child actor and model before the two married, in part to the fact that neither had a childhood. Suffice it to say that Agassi Prep, the reportedly stellar K-12 Las Vegas charter school the athlete and now-wife Steffi Graf endowed with their tennis wealth, is not a sports academy.
IMG Academy today is a much bigger and, one hopes, better place than Old Nick’s tennis farm of 30-plus years ago. Certainly it’s more expensive, with full tuition and fees topping $70,000 a year, and although scholarships are available they’re not universal because it’s there to make money.
Enrollees, whom the school’s website calls “student-athletes” in the dubious NCAA terminology, live a regimented existence that includes dormitory bunks and cafeteria meals. They spend their weekday mornings in academic classes and afternoons and weekends practicing or training for their sports under professional eyes, putting in much more time on that than they would in a normal school setting. The boys’ football and basketball teams play schedules that involve out-of-state travel. Tennis players and golfers of both sexes crisscross the land playing junior tournaments. It’s the logical next step for kids who as young as eight have been pushed to specialize in a single sport and perform on “traveling teams” that play 60- to 80-game annual schedules in baseball, basketball or soccer. See my blog of April 15 for comment on that.
Being a rich and famous sports star is wonderful, of course, and some moms and dads (mostly dads, I’d say) like to live vicariously through their children’s playing-field exploits, but it’s hard to find any economic math that would justify the kind of expenditure an IMG Academy education requires. A college-athletics scholarship would seem to be the first expected return, but even at IMG half-tuition ($35,000 a year for four years) the payback wouldn’t seem to justify the payout.
Beyond that comes the inexorable winnowing process that always makes the odds against a professional-sports career a struck-by-lightning sort of proposition. One on-line source calculates that only one of every 200 senior boys who play high-school varsity baseball is drafted by a Major League team, and the chance of reaching a big-league locker room from even that talented pool is greater than one in 30. The odds are worse still in basketball, which more kids play but where big-league rosters are smaller. Factors such as injury or burnout can intervene. It’s a long shot even with an IMG Academy diploma in hand.
It still might be worth considering if sports offered long-term employment, but the opposite is true: the average career in the NFL is about 3 ½ seasons, in the NBA about 4 ½ and in MLB about 5 ½. That means that most jocks are over the hill before age 30 and must fashion new careers when those of their contemporaries are just taking off. As many ex-jocks will tell you, that’s not a good place to be, no matter how you got there.