One of the bits that I remember from my late 70s/early 80s youth reading MAD magazine (cheap!) was a satire of sports coverage that included a breathless piece on a 6-foot-2 sixth-grader’s commitment to play basketball at “Jagger Junior High.”
The only ridiculous thing about that satire now is that people wouldn’t be worried about where that sixth-grader was playing junior high. They’re already talking about his college prospects, which is how we come to this story in the Jan. 4 New York Times (hat tip: Mark Hyman’s Youth Sports Parents blog):
[Names removed to protect the innocent] are among 143 players here for Sunday’s inaugural Football University Youth All-American Bowl, a series of three games at the Alamodome that will feature the nation’s top seventh and eighth graders. …
“Imagine if you could have saw Reggie Bush when he was in eighth grade or seventh grade and see how he develops,” said John Gallagher, the director of the Football University Youth All-American Bowl.
Organizers are billing the bowl as an event similar to the Little League World Series, but coaches and others say it opens a path toward professionalism already traveled by other sports, like basketball, golf and tennis. …
The Football University Youth All-American Bowl is the brainchild of SportsLink Inc., a sports-marketing company based in Wharton, N.J., that operates the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, an annual all-star game for the nation’s top high school seniors.
The new event was the idea of Rich McGuinness, the president of SportsLink, who said he had grown tired of having players in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl who were physically gifted, but technique deficient. So he created Football University, invitation-only instructional football camps across the country from February to July at a cost of $40 an hour for campers.
The sons of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, the former N.F.L. wide receiver Ed McCaffrey and the former N.B.A. star Karl Malone are among the participants in the Football University Youth All-American Bowl. The event is meant to showcase the nation’s top seventh and eighth graders, as well as emphasize leadership, teamwork, and speed and strength, McGuinness said. Even with players paying for their travel and lodging, the event is expected to lose $30,000.
“In major sports, they start identifying their best players in seventh and eighth grade,” McGuinness said. “That’s what happens in the world. It never happened in football because the N.F.L. is the only player.”
Has a soft commitment to Texas, but is still considering Florida, Oklahoma and USC.
While we all appreciate Rich McGuiness’ concern about our nation’s footballers being so poor in technique that someday Argentina might beat us, let’s not kid ourselves. This is Rich McGuiness building on the success of the high school all-star game (which even has its skills competitions on the ESPN networks) and bringing it down a notch. As creepy as John Gallagher sounds (and his quote would me take precaution to have my sons avoid walking by his house while he’s out watering the bushes), you can look on a million college football message boards and find someone, somewhere, discussing the best sixth-grade player in the country. If pro sports can be deemed homoerotic, then what is the underlying meaning of a desire to watch and rate 12-year-old boys?
The Times, in its story, talks about this as bringing professionalism to youth football like exists in, well, pretty much every other sports, where club and private instruction has taken over for school leagues. In fact, I would guess a big reason college football coaches were quoted as not liking this game is that it’s soul-sucking enough to go through high school coaches to beg for players. Now someday they could have the same pleasure as basketball coaches in going through street hustlers posing as coaches!
Speaking of professionalism, the Times doesn’t mention it, but youth sports has been tagged in some areas as a possibly recession-proof activity, and it certainly is being relied on as a economic development activity, something I’ll get to in great detail in later posts. All-star games or not, there’s big money to be made in youth sports. If you don’t believe me, look at who Hyman lists as among the game’s sponsors: Russell Athletics, Schutt Sports, Athletic Republic, World Sporting Goods and SI for Kids.
And yet, I can’t condemn this out of hand. If you’re gifted as a student, as an actor, as a musician, or whatever, it’s expected you might travel for special instruction, competition or activities. Wanting to be the best at what you do is not inherently wrong, and if your child is really, really gung-ho about something, it’s your business as a parent to spend money and time helping the child pursue that interest. The key, as always, is perspective. Lewis and Malone are quoted in the article as saying they want to make sure the game, and football in general, is fun for their kids, and that their sons don’t go overboard thinking they’re god’s gift to football.
On the other hand, a meet-up like this also can teach kids that you might be king of your seventh grade, but here is what you have to compete against as you move up. That can help the child decide whether he wants to make the commitment to pursue this intensely, or whether it might be a good idea to concentrate on something else and play sports, or violin, or whatever the activity, with no mind toward making a living or getting a college scholarship off of it. Or help the parents gain perspective either way, if they’re the ones more intent on pushing the dream. Even for older kids, there are plenty of intramural and other such leagues out there for them that are great fun and great for development, and are a better fit if you’re not gunning to be the next Peyton Manning.