Monday, May 17, 2010
Last week a Texas high school basketball player was busted for being 22 years old. He was outed at a tournament where his former Florida high school coaches recognized him. Ramifications of this discovery comprise his Texas team forfeiting all their games including the state championship and a renewed discussion on how we can insure that youth sports are played by youth. Every couple of years a sports prodigy pops who challenges our ideas of what a youth player should be able to accomplish. That challenge ultimately leads to endless forums questioning the player's age. Once an overage player is discovered, everyone suffers from guilt by association.
Most of us remember the dust-up over Freddy Adu. The soccer player from Ghana was just 14 years old when he was selected in the 2004 MLS draft by DC United. Because he had immigrated to the United States at age 8 many sports writers questioned his actual birth date which is listed as June 2, 1989, making him just a week younger than my oldest son. So the swirling arguments were not only fascinating but also relevant. During many of Bryce's games we parents on the sidelines would comment on the "Adu situation." Most of it was fueled by jealousy, but part of it was fueled by incredulity. How could anyone be that good that young? Issues which never came up in normal conversation were suddenly on the lips of most soccer parents: bone length studies, DNA analysis, cranial evaluation. In the end Freddy played in the MLS and on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, was picked up by overseas clubs, and then essentially faded into the broad spectrum of American soccer players abroad. His brightly burning star cooled to the same temperature as any of his peers because once the age issue was no longer significant the only aspect of his career that mattered was his talent which has dipped in comparison recently. He didn't even make the U.S. roster for the World Cup team.
Scandals involving Little League players show up regularly because the age limits for the World Series teams are extremely tight. In 2001 a pitching phenomenon led his team to a third place finish in the World Series only to have that finish wiped from the record books when it was revealed that he was overage by just a few months. Danny Altimonte, now 23 years old, had baseball success in high school helping his team win the state championship, and is working towards developing a coaching career. His unfortunate miss of the age deadline really shouldn't eclipse his ability to pitch at 90 miles an hour while waiting for his voice to change. But for the purposes of rules and an even playing field, those few months became the story. Controversy over players both on foreign teams and foreign players on U.S. teams has plagued the Little League. Inaccurate birth certificates, easily doctored records, and missing documentation all contribute to serious questions about player eligibility. Of course, if a player is average, no one bothers with questions about age or eligibility.
When Robbie was in preschool his best friend was a boy two months his junior and over a foot taller. While Robbie was in the lower fifth percentile on the growth chart, his friend was off the scale. When they played sports together no one believed that this boy was actually the younger of the two. Many people seriously questioned his age and therefore called into question his athletic ability as being only an offshoot of his "true" age. It certainly made things awkward at soccer games where opposing team coaches and parents would loudly protest his participation. The poor kid, who absolutely was the age he said he was, felt dishonest and unworthy. His parents grew weary of defending their six year old from ugly verbal attacks. He eventually switched to football, which was better suited for his frame and once he got to middle school he had several teammates bigger than he was, so no one challenged his age any longer.
Robbie faced a different age challenge because he was born on Dec. 27, making him young for his US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program team. He would often moan about not being born four days later so he could play on the next year up. And he was right. His very same skills would be more impressive against players six months younger than he was instead of six months older than he was. But those were the rules. The disparity in age got less and less significant as he grew older because the physical development of the boys evened out, and Robbie got more "looks" once he reached age 14. On the other hand his teammate, Josh Lambo, was just a month older than Robbie and he joined FC Dallas when he was 17. So birthdates aren't the only factor in a player's success or controversy.
The downside of players being overage exists more for the team than for the player. Although the 22-year-old basketball player is under arrest for identity theft and other crimes related to his unfortunate choice, the real losers are his teammates who now will forfeit that all-important high school memory of a state championship. The Little League pitcher has obviously gone on to forge his future in baseball, but his teammates will forever have the bitter taste of a significant accomplishment taken away. Somewhere in this huge world of 6 billion people there are kids who develop early, possess talent beyond their years, and find their accomplishments called into question. Right now the buzz in the soccer world is about a 9-year-old Brazilian and an 8-year-old Dutch boy who apparently have skills that beg the issue if they could really be that good and that young. In 10 years they will either have risen to epic status or become just another good soccer player. The real reckoning will depend on several factors: talent, opportunity, drive, and development. Amazingly those are the same factors that affect any young player, sensation or not. While our children may not be awarded a million dollar Nike contract before getting their driver's licenses, they will be awarded the fun and memories of playing the sport they love and the chance to make something great out of their experience. We'll even joke that once they hit the big time we'll get all those thousands of dollars invested in their play returned with interest. Just one more thing, if your kids get there before mine do, toss a few crumbs my way.