Basketball's new breed

Posted: Aug 02, 2001 12:00 AM
The Nike shoe company backed a big truck up to 18-year-old Tyson Chandler's home last week and dumped $1.75 million product endorsement deal in his front yard. The young athlete, drafted No. 2 overall straight out of high school in last month's NBA draft, was said by his agent to be wearing a very large smile. On one level, the story is classic tale of a kid from meager means making good on his talent. On another level, the deal is a sign that the business of sports is co-opting the spirit of amateur athletics, spelling doom for collegiate sports in general and the child athlete specifically. Teenagers dominated last month's NBA draft, with three of the top four picks coming directly from the high school ranks. Lured by the promise of guaranteed NBA contracts and the success of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tracey McGrady, more and more high schoolers are bypassing college campuses for the pros. This year, only two college seniors were picked in the top 20. Plainly, the trend is toward youth and potential and it is severely diluting the talent of college basketball. No longer will great players butt heads on a consistent basis. Say goodbye to the compelling individual rivalries of the past. No longer will we watch stars like Michael Jordan hone their talents over the course of four years, while all of America gazes wide-eyed at their development. We'll just have to imagine what would have been. Meanwhile, only 31 percent of the underclassmen drafted since 1997 remain on NBA rosters. The rest were simply ill prepared to navigate the rigors of NBA life. Still, a complex marketing machine involving shoe companies, street agents, and privately funded traveling teams will likely lead more, not fewer athletes to declare early or bypass college altogether. The process starts early on, when would-be athletes like Chandler (many of whom are not yet teenagers) are spotted on playgrounds by neighborhood agents with shoe company connections. The agents then try to establish some sense of loyalty with these potential stars by filling them with sugary dreams of dollars, endorsement deals, celebrity and all those other things that fulfill our adolescent desires to be "feared and worshipped." These promising youths (the fittest, the strongest) are promptly shipped off to shoe-sponsored sports camp where their talents are honed under the adoring gaze of coaches who also happen to be on the show company payrolls. Like prime thoroughbreds, they are trotted about in traveling tournament events that function outside the authority of any regulatory commission. Money, gifts, promises and special favors from unscrupulous agents, shoe executives and recruiters inevitably follow. A recent edition of HBO's "Real Sports" alleged that Nike executive George Raveling gave cash gifts to Amare Stoudemire, a top high school prospect. Tyson Chandler was driving a high performance Sports Utility vehicle by his junior year in high school. Indeed, the bounty is great for the high school kid with "hops." Along the way, these kids are sent a message: they-as the fittest in the Darwinian sense-are held to a different standard. They need not worry about finances or academic standards when they have agents and business executives dying to take care of those things for them. The effect is only to further separate these children form the social conventions that build character in the rest of us. This, I believe, can only lead to disaster. From the recent statutory rape charged filed against 20-year-old Utah Jazz rookie DeShawn Stevenson to the attempted suicide of fellow high school draftee Leon Smith, the newspapers are littered with stories of child athletes who are simply not prepared to handle the challenges of NBA life. If we wonder why these kids throw away the promise of wealth and fame by acting out their dark and self-destructive whims, it's plainly because they have been told, from a very early age, that they are quite beyond the rules of social decorum that enmesh the rest of us. The NBA, so successful over the last decade at marketing itself as a form of show business, must now contend with the dark undercurrents of their success: namely, that business is co-opting the sport with an elaborate network of unscrupulous street agents and shoe-sponsored camps and tournament events. It's time for the NBA to step in and protect young athletes by regulating such youth events and lessening the influence of cash inducements to amateur players. The alternative is to hand our child athletes over to those who would have them believe hat they can do whatever they please, and to invite disaster.