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Archive for Thursday, August 31, 2006

Commentary: ‘Next level’ too often next concern

August 31, 2006

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One of the most discouraging developments in sports over the past 20 years is the way we've put our young athletes through a forced march into adulthood.

Ten-year-old kids who should be lying on their backs and seeing animal shapes in the clouds are playing 80 baseball games a year and traveling around the country like Jack Kerouac.

High school sports, which used to be about the joy of competing, have turned into a scholarship grab. And some of us in the media have dutifully tailored our coverage to reflect it.

What happens anymore on a high-school court or field only seems to matter as it relates to college options. It's nice if a running back scores a game-winning touchdown, but how often do you find yourself scanning through the newspaper account of it to see if he's being recruited? That's how we've been programmed.

Buckets of newspaper ink are devoted to running down the latest information on where the best high school athletes might be going to college. Which programs have offered scholarships is given in breathless detail. Recruiting Web sites are as prevalent as weeds in an empty lot.

Chicago Simeon's Derrick Rose is considered one of the best high school basketball players in the country, and his recruitment has been covered as if it were the City Hall beat. The latest story line has to do with the allegation that an outside force is shaping his decisions. The outside force would be a shoe company.

Rose recently narrowed his list of college choices to DePaul, Kansas University, Indiana, UCLA and Memphis. Coincidence or not, all of the schools' coaches have sponsorship deals with Adidas. Illinois coach Bruce Weber, whose school didn't make Rose's cut, has a deal with Nike. Swoosh, the conspiracy theorists say, you're outta here, Bruce.

Rose played in some events over the summer that were sponsored by Reebok, which is owned by Adidas, and, well, you can see how the conspiracy theories got going.

Everybody involved denies the charges, and you would, too, it's so embarrassing. A 17-year-old kid being manipulated by money-hungry adults would not be one of your more heartwarming stories.

Then again, the entire job description of the sewer rats who work for the shoe companies is to influence young players. They're the men looking to tie up players in the hope they'll turn into superstars someday. And then those superstars will be able to sell another generation of impressionable youth on the importance of $200 shoes.

Understand that, at heart, this isn't about Rose. There may be no basis for the Rose-Adidas shenanigans story, but it really doesn't matter. What matters is that we've been around long enough to not even blink at the possibility it's true. A star high school player the object of affection of the $2.5 billion-a-year basketball shoe industry? Sounds about right.

Where are we headed? I don't know. I do know that the sports world has become warped. The emphasis on it is at an all-time high. Parents look at their kids and see opportunity. The vast majority of them need to get their eyes checked.

At some point, there is going to be a reckoning. Whether that reckoning will be selfish, unwatchable sports or an increased suicide rate among young athletes, who can say? But with all that pressure, something has to give. The market has to correct itself.

When it becomes very important what basketball shoe a high school player wears, we're all in trouble. I wonder if we even know it.

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