Jeremy Tyler has chosen to shovel his way out of the sleazy world of youth sports. Whether this move proves to be audacious or audaciously stupid remains to be seen.
Tyler, a 17- year-old high school junior who stands at 6-foot-11 and possesses an irresistible mix of grace and power, recently announced he would forgo his last year of high school to play pro basketball in Europe., Yes, high school.
Doing so, he circumvented the National Basketball Association’s bizarre policy, enacted in 2005, requiring US players to wait one year after their graduating high school class before turning pro. The hope of NBA Commissioner David Stern has been that high school grads would get a year of free exposure to college and develop what he cryptically calls “maturity.”
This has led to the “one and done” phenomenon, in which players like the last two NBA Rookie of the Year winners Derek Rose and Kevin Durant stroll into the league after just one farcical year of college. Last year, high school point guard phenom Brandon Jennings bucked the system: instead of going to college to play for free, he competed in Europe. Jennings earned $1.2 million in salary and endorsements, but his first season has been a personal disaster. He’s told stories of homesickness, culture shock and not getting his game checks. Jennings e-mailed the New York Times, “I’ve gotten paid on time once this year. They treat me like I’m a little kid. They don’t see me as a man. If you get on a good team, you might not play a lot. Some nights you won’t play at all. That’s just how it is…. It’s tough man, I’ll tell you that. It can break you.”
Unlike Jennings, a polished phenom, Tyler is raw like sushi. His high school team went 15-11 and he is judged to be years away from harnessing his skills. But given the fraudulent nature of the entire high-school-to-pro process, it’s hard to get on the moral high horse about his decision. That hasn’t stopped the sports media from strapping on the saddle.
Doug Gottlieb, basketball analyst at ESPN, said he was “vehemently opposed” to Tyler’s decision. “When did our society become completely and totally focused on the paper chase and not on the substance of the human being chasing the paper?” Gottlieb asked.
He also wonders, “Where is the value on getting an education? A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but Tyler’s handlers are not concerned with his brain, only his brawn. Tyler is not even going to finish his junior year academically, let alone begin his senior year. That means he’s forfeiting all the experiences that come with high school–no prom, no cap and gown, no SAT, no college, just hoops from here on out. Have we really gotten to this point?”
Well, yes. We bought that point and paid off its mortgage years ago. It’s a fantasy to think that top athletes have anything resembling the “normal experience” for their six months in college before they “one and done” it for the pros, let alone the senior high school slump of having your college chosen and locked up before the fall. For today’s players, it’s AAU ball from the time they are out of Underoos. The professionalization of youth sports has been going on for a generation. Jeremy Tyler is just putting into contract form what has in the past been done under the table.
There is definitely a racial and class dynamic to the chorus of disapproval. Consider the whole concept of branding basketball players as “immature” when they attempt to go pro.
Washington State University ethnic studies professor David Leonard told me, “The endless criticism directed at Tyler and the focus on his maturity reflects the longstanding process of imagining African-Americans as children incapable of making mature decisions, all while celebrating the white parent (the coach and the sports commentator) who always knows best. Of course, these critics not only ignore fact that Tyler will be 18 this June but the maturity and intelligence evident in this decision. Quoted in New York Times‘s Quad Blog, Tyler noted: ‘If I go to college and fill up an arena with 30,000 people, I don’t get a penny. In my profession with what I’m doing in my life, it doesn’t need a full college degree.’ Now that is maturity.”
It’s also worth noting that while Tyler’s career decision sparked controversy among the yipping heads of the sports blabocracy, there is less vehement concern over maturity in other sports. Country club games like golf and tennis–not to mention figure skating and gymnastics– regularly groom young players to be professionals.
Graceful, agile, and essentially bred for Olympic excellence from their first baby steps, successful amateur gymnast careers can begin at the age of 5 or 6.
Doug Browne, director of tennis at the Hideaway Beach Club, admitted the following about common practice on junior tennis tours around the country in a recent piece in the Sun Times of Naples, Florida.
In the past three-plus summers on the junior tennis circuit, it has been commonplace for my students to compete against kids who do not formally attend a public or private school. Perhaps what is most disturbing to me is that most of them begin to pull out of school at the tender age of 11 or 12…. to allow at least five hours of practice each day before they head to a weekend tennis tournament.
The arguments against Jeremy Tyler’s decision to go Euro-pro become all the more twisted when we consider what military recruiters are able to do in a typical public high school. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires high schools that receive federal money to provide students’ names, addresses and telephone numbers to military recruiters. The law effectively gives the military unrivaled access to schools and to young people from their freshman year.
If you can carry a gun in Iraq at 18, you should be able to play in the NBA. if you are good enough to make millions for a college and coaching staff, you should be able to be paid. Maybe becoming a Euro-pro will turn out to be wrong decision for Jeremy Tyler. But maybe the system shouldn’t be set up so wrong decisions look like common sense.