The Arizona Republic is my local newspaper and I read its sports pages daily. They’re about par for the course for a regional paper, mixing a basic amount of national coverage (box scores and the like) with a heavier dose of area sports news. Phoenix’s big-league professional teams are covered not only intensively but also breathlessly; almost every day brings a feature describing how brave, clean and reverent one local hero or another is. It seems that the paper’s sportswriters deem themselves lucky to be able to hang out with such swell fellas.
The pages keep their focus on the games at hand, rarely stepping back to ponder larger pictures. That’s why a late-May piece on local high-school sports by the paper’s Richard Obert caught my eye. Under the neutral headline “Finding Balance in Today’s Landscape” it described a prep sports scene gone mad, with “overworked coaches feeling the strain of carrying a program year-round; administrators pressured by parents; parents spending ungodly amounts of money for [private] camps, coaches and clubs; and athletes pulled in different directions.” It asks: “How does everybody keep their sanity in today’s high school sports world?”
I’d guess that the description is quite foreign to anyone over 50 years old, and certainly to anyone my age (79). When I was a high-schooler sports were seasonal and kids spent their summers lifeguarding or bagging groceries, maybe playing some twilight pickup games in the parks. A (very) few among us were standouts, but we attributed that to inborn abilities—gifts from God or the gods—and just another example of life’s unfairness. The rest of us shrugged and directed ourselves elsewhere.
I’ve written before about the professionalization of childhood, most lately in a December 1, 2015 piece about IMG Academy, which you can see by scrolling way, way down. It’s a for-profit boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, at which, for tuition and fees topping $70,000 a year, kids starting at age 13 can along with schooling receive intensive coaching in a number of sports, including baseball, football, basketball and, even, lacrosse. The aim is to prepare the youngsters for pro careers or, at least, college-athletics scholarships, although what the place is charging would seem to wipe out any financial gain for parents a “free ride” might bring.
Now, it seems that public and parochial high schools in Arizona (and probably elsewhere) are providing a similar if not as expensive experience. In football and basketball, seasons have become year-round or close to it, with organized practices carrying into the summers, and when schools don’t do it programs conducted by the AAU or other outside organizations do. “Spring football moves into 7-on-7 passing tournaments and big-man contests,” Obert writes. “Basketball goes into [July] club with June primarily the month coaches spend with their players in leagues and tournaments. …It never stops. There’s always something”
Kids -- boys especially-- are encouraged by coaches and parents to begin specializing at ever-earlier ages. Coaches are pressed to win so their teams will attract the sort of news-media attention that draws college scouts. Parents harass coaches about playing time for their offspring to the extent that some coaches make it known that the subject is off-limits. Schools recruit players away from other schools. Players transfer in search of greater exposure.
If that isn’t enough the players, tied to social media like most of their contemporaries, compete intramurally for peer celebrity. “The more [college] offers you have the more [Facebook] followers you have and the more people know about you,” one highly-recruited football player was quoted as saying. “There’s definitely more pressure to perform well.”
That alone might be bad enough, but in individual sports such as tennis, golf and (yes) baseball, the drive to mold top-level skills starts well before high school; if a kid isn’t an ace by 13 he might as well forget it. The recent story in Sports Illustrated magazine about Hunter Greene, the suburban-Los Angeles teenage pitcher/shortstop who was the No. 2 choice (by the Cincinnati Reds) in last week’s Major League Baseball draft, tells how the lad has been playing in year-around travel leagues since age eight, logging at least 70 games annually. “He flew with his team to Omaha when he was nine; Florida, South Carolina and New York when he was 10, Ecuador when he was 12.” Between games he was driven by his parents to L.A. for tutorials with ex-Major Leaguers. He does yoga with a private instructor three times a week and is trained in plyometrics (strenuous jumping exercises) after baseball practice. It might take a seven-figure initial pro contract to get his folks back to even.
Bryce Harper, the 24-year-old Washington Nationals’ slugger and top choice in the 2010 MLB draft, has a similar biography. He, too, hit the travel-team road at eight and was pushed through high school in two years with a GED so he could spend a year at junior college (majoring in baseball) and join the pros at 18 instead of 19. The father of Kris Bryant, the young Chicago Cubs star, built a back-yard batting cage in which his son could start taking serious cuts at age five. A former minor leaguer, dad Bryant now rents himself out as a hitting guru.
The poster boy for early prep is Tiger Woods, the golfer. His dad Earl, an ex-Army officer, had him swinging sawed-off golf clubs while still in diapers. The kid broke 50 for nine holes at six and was playing in junior tournaments against teens when he was nine. The regimen, plus the genius-level physical aptitudes without which any amount of sports prep is pretty much useless, paid off for Tiger with early fame, glory and riches, but also with a middle age that, now, seems hellish. One only can wonder if a different beginning might have led to a different result.