My strong feelings about the exploitation of teenage athletes are well documented. I think we are living through a transformative moment in our culture concerning sports and the cult of teenage amateurism. As I mentioned earlier, Jeremy Tyler, a teenage basketball star from San Diego has opted to forego his final year of high school in order to play professionally in Israel (great novel plot there somewhere). This has elicited a lot of reaction, naturally. I think none is more notable or more sadly off base than Dick Vitale’s. If you are even slightly aware of college basketball, you know Dick Vitale. He’s the hyper-enthusiastic broadcaster and ex-coach who’s made “baby” a personal catchphrase. He’s synonymous with college basketball. He called the first college game ESPN ever broadcast 30 years ago (in an era where college ball players routinely stayed in school for several years). I believe that Vitale sincerely believes in college athletics and is well meaning, but when he writes this, he sounds unfortunately like a clueless, rich white guy:
What is it all coming down to? Now kids are leaving high school early to chase the dream of playing in the pros. It is all about instant gratification and getting the dollars. The problem is that these players lose out on a valuable, irreplaceable time in their lives. They miss out on being a kid!
I freely admit that I haven’t read anything about Jeremy Tyler’s situation. He may have a huge trust fund; he may be living on food stamps. It doesn’t matter. Who is Vitale to tell this young man that his next year in high school is “valuable and irreplaceable”? If Tyler were to blow out his knee in some meaningless game in his senior year, Vitale should be compelled to visit him at the hospital and say that to his face. It is simply wrong and sanctimonious for anyone to condemn a teenager who chooses to take what is possibly his best shot at a significant income in the name of “being a kid,” especially when those people are already making money off of him. After all, blue-chip high school players are heavily scouted, from as early as sixth grade, and those scouts are compensated for their efforts. High school tournaments attracts broadcasters and advertisers. If the athletes see any of that money, though, they risk their amateur status.
Vitale, to his credit, doesn’t support the NBA-NCAA rules that prevent athletes from going to the NBA out of high school, but he does point out that Tyler had committed to attending Louisville before he changed his mind and signed with the Israeli team. Louisville coach Rick Patino (presently embroiled in a sex and extortion scandal) makes over one million dollars a year plus endorsements to coach teenagers who are compensated with a theoretical education many of them don’t want or need. Nice work if you can get, and I don’t begrudge Patino, but anyone who draws a paycheck from the multibillion dollar “amateur” athletics industry should be ashamed to invoke “being a kid” as a reason not to take the money and run.