Meet David Sills, Jr. David is in middle school, a seventh grader in Delaware who loves to play football. And he’s entered into a verbal agreement with USC to play for them in 2015.
I was all set to be incensed at this. I even started arguing about it with Steve. I used Michelle Kwan as my backup argument, and even as the name left my lips, I realized that I’d defeated myself.
My argument was that Sills is too young to be looked at by college recruiters. He’s too young to make a decision about where he wants to go to school, whether he’ll play football for the NCAA powerhouse. What kind of pressure will that put on him? What will that do to his academic performance? “Forget the math test, David… you have drills to run!” No, no, I thought… too young. Let him have a childhood.
And I threw out the Michelle Kwan argument. Look at her, I said. She started skating early, but she also had … tutors … but she never … well … I guess maybe she WAS looking toward the Olympics at a very early age. And she was. She burst on the national skating scene at the tender age of 12, when she took the senior division by storm and earned second place at Nationals, finishing behind Tonya Harding. She attended the Olympics that year as an alternate, providing an island of calm in the Kerrigan/Harding soap opera. Kwan then went on to a long and distinguished skating career. She remains the same class act that she’s always been, on and off the ice.
So why should I be all chuffed at USC offering this kid a shot at a future? Isn’t that exactly what the Olympics does? And isn’t that, in effect, what we all do with our children, starting at a very early age? Parents start quizzing little Johnny when he can barely talk, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Some beam with pride when Johnny replies that he wants to be a fireman or a policeman. Others gently correct him, saying that he should shoot to be a lawyer or a doctor like Daddy. And then they start setting aside money to finance a very expensive college career. Johnny is on the career track before he can even write his name… if it’s in academics.
But when it comes to sports, the argument becomes, “it’s a risk. Only the best of the best are the huge successes. Have a backup.”
But isn’t that true of every career? Barack Obama used to be a lawyer, and is now President. Not many lawyers become President of the United States. Does that mean that no child should ever aspire to be a lawyer? Bill Gates started out as a computer geek, messing with programming systems and learning the inner workings of the computer when he was in eighth grade. But not many computer geeks end up as the Richest Man in the World. Does that mean that kids shouldn’t aspire to be computer geeks? I daresay that if parents of current seventh graders were offered college scholarships to prestigious universities for their budding lawyers and computer geeks, they’d jump at the offer, and never once tell the kid to “have a backup plan”.
Why, then, is it different with sports? Is it because of the fickle nature of the game? The possibility of injury? It can’t be the pressure. Kids who want to be lawyers, businessmen, even musicians feel pressured, not only by themselves, but by parents, teachers, even society, to excel and be the very best that they can be.
It could be argued that this IS different. With the Olympics, Bill Gates’ rise to success, the Presidency, most any career, the impetus, the push, the drive all come from the bottom. They all come from within the individual. No American Olympic Athlete was ever approached by the Olympic Committee offering free training. Certainly no President was given a hand up as a child by any organization and set on an “expenses paid” track for the Oval Office (with the exception, perhaps of JFK, and it was his father, not an organization, that paved the way).
But here we have what could be construed as the start of a disturbing trend, and here is where one could shoot holes in my “it’s the same as any other career” theory: Now the elite organizations – the colleges and the professional organizations – are fishing in the guppy ponds. They are not sitting back and waiting for the talent to develop, for the individual to come to them. They are actively seeking out and recruiting the very youngest in the field, based on speculation rather than on proven records. They are wading in and actively influencing youngsters perhaps before they have given serious thought to their future career.
The question has not been posed, but what if David Sills has dual dreams? What if he thinks about being an NFL quarterback and a high school math teacher? Given the regular course of things, he would have had the rest of middle school and all of high school to investigate those two goals, to flesh out the pros and cons of each. To develop his throwing arm and his mathematical muscle equally. But now, USC has stepped in very early in the game, and influenced that decision in a profound way. Yes, David can, at any time, back out of the deal with no repercussions beyond losing the scholarship. But who turns down a full ride to an elite university like USC? So the decision has, in effect, been made for him. He will be a football player, not a math teacher.
Where do you stand on it? Do you think this agreement puts too much pressure on an 11-year old? Or is it a natural progression, similar to any other career track when a kid knows, at an early age, what he wants to be when he grows up?