The youth sports version of torture porn
An interesting story behind “Play Their Hearts Out,” a book by George Dohrmann — one of the few sportswriters to ever win a Pulitzer Prize — about the youth basketball machine. Apparently Dohrmann, traveling on his own dime, was able to follow a 9- and 10-year-old AAU team, as long as he didn’t write about what happened until the players were out of high school. The book sounds amazing. The book comes out Oct. 5.
Dohrmann unearthed all sorts of academic fraud at the University of Minnesota to get his Pulitzer, and for his book he unearths all sorts of stink about what really happens in the high-stakes youth basketball world. You might think you have a general idea of how rotten it is, but Dohrmann finds it’s worse than you would ever imagine. From a Los Angeles Times review:
The world … is one of shocking greed and ego, one where adults use and abuse children under the banner of sport. There are few good guys in this book, but certainly not the coaches who seek the big dollars of the shoe companies, nor the shoe companies that provide them.
This is how it works.
The shoe companies — Adidas, Reebok, Nike, etc. — are always looking for the next Michael Jordan, whose unmatchable endorsement power whetted everybody’s appetite for more.
The youth coaches gather teams, play win-at-all-costs games, emulate Bob Knight along the sidelines during games and hope that the shoe companies will not only hear about them and provide their young and impressionable players with free shoes and product, but also put them on the payroll.
Mom and dad allow their 9- and 10-year-olds to be used and yelled at because they have visions of college scholarships and pro contracts. Some parents allow their children to play only if the coach pays their rent. If the coach does so, it is most often with money from the shoe companies. If the parents have money, they bribe coaches to have their child included.
Hangers-on publish ratings of these almost teenagers, even though these raters often have never seen the players they are rating. High ratings of their players, in recruiting newsletters and on websites, mean more leverage for the youth coach with the shoe companies. They are also a recruiting guideline for college coaches, who know these ratings have minimal credibility and ought to know better than to use them.
These children play in multiple games and tournaments that become, to them, the only measure of their worth. The tournaments become meat markets for coaches, scouts and raters, as well the youth coaches’ auditions for the shoe companies.
The writer, Bill Dwyre (Dohrmann’s former boss at the Times), calls “Play from the Heart” a book that makes you want to take a shower.
See, this is why I originally titled this review of the review “A new youth basketball/child torture book I’m not sure I want to read.” It sounds amazing, and it sounds like it should be read by every parent who decides to throw his or her child into the youth sports pool without a floatie. But it might be too horrible to watch the slow, painful torture of children that sounds like it unfolds through the course of the book. You want to find out how you can save these kids — except it’s eight years too late.
If you can’t bring yourself to read the book, know this. The 9-year-old at the center is one of the many next LeBrons, Demetrius Walker. He was still being called a next LeBron at age 14.
Instead of going straight to the NBA, Walker got a scholarship — which, to be fair, is more than most get — to Arizona State. He averaged four points per game, and fell out of favor with coach Herb Sendek. In 2010-11, he’ll sit out a year as a transfer to New Mexico. Maybe Walker will still be an NBA player. But it sure doesn’t look good. And, for that, Walker — once surrounded by adult sycophants angling to cash in his future fame — instead will find himself in therapy in the Next LeBron Support Group.