Sports

Why Does a 14-year-Old Matter?

David Leonard

The praise for Freddy Adu and Michelle Wie cannot be understood outside the constant critique against those young black males seeking entry into the NBA, as race, class, gender, nationality, and sport all play into fan/commentator reception and perception.


Freddy Adu


Michelle Wie

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Last month was big for the world of sports. It wasn't extraordinary because of the many playoff games on television; it wasn't exciting because my teams were battling to play in this year's (super) commercial bowl. Even my beloved Lakers offered little appeal, with half their team on the bench with injuries. With no football, basketball, or even poker on ESPN, the focus of the last sports month has resided with two 14-year-olds.

Michelle Wie and Freddy Adu entered the American sports radar last month as America's youngest golf and soccer sensations, respectively. While playing in a few previous LPGA events, Wie, for her part, generated societal excitement with her entry in the PGA's (aka the men's tour) Sony Open. Wie has long marveled the golf world with her sheer strength and mastery over some of America's most difficult courses. At the age of 12, she qualified for an LPGA event; at 13, she became the youngest winner of the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links Championship. Yet her performance at the Sony Open elicited the biggest stir, earning praise from fans and her male peers on the tour.

After shooting a 68 and missing the cut by just one shot, Ernie Els had nothing but compliments for Wie: "There was an argument whether she should be playing or not, but I'm, glad she played. I thought it was exciting. It's the talk in the locker room, the guys that got out-hit and got beat." Although debates raged about whether this girl without a tour card (she was provided an exemption given the interest her participation would generate for a tournament in her home state) should play in a PGA tournament, no one seemed to care that she was 14. Not a single announcer, commentator, or male golfer questioned her maturity or the appropriateness of her playing professional golf. Rather, they gawked at her talent and potential, describing her as a prodigy, the future of golf and the next Tiger Woods.

Only hours after Wie teed off, Freddy Adu sat in anticipation of fulfilling his dream of a professional soccer career. Adu became the youngest professional athlete in the last one hundred years after D.C. United drafted him first in this year's amateur draft. Like Wie, Adu has amazed the American sports public with his talent and maturity. Deemed alternately by the sports press as a "strong kick for American soccer," a "preteen phenom," and as "precious as Doogie Howser," his talents in the classroom are emphasized as much as his juggling skills and rocket of a left foot.

The praise for these two athletes, however, cannot be understood outside the constant critique against those young black males seeking entry into the NBA, as race, class, gender, nationality, and sport all play into fan/commentator reception and perception. In this context, David Aldridge, one of the few bright lights within America's sporting establishment, recently lamented the connections between the NBA and the youth movement within other sports, illustrating the ways in which race, sport and identity affect media/societal reception: "In Major League soccer, 14-year-old Freddy Adu signs a contract... and is treated with fawning press coverage... Even though no one expects him to be a superstar next season... no one begrudges him the opportunity to play... In the NBA, 18-year-olds... are routinely blamed for destroying the league with their lack of skills."

This double standard does not merely reflect America's love/hate relationship with professional basketball, but the hegemonic adherence to policing young black males, who defy dominant expectations with baggy shorts, trash talking, bling-bling, and hyper masculinity. In society in general, especially in spaces dominated by black youth, we expect control, reverence and respect, and are repelled by -- even in fear of -- black youth, who are habitually demonized as the source of America's social problems.

While very few people seem to see a problem with a fourteen-year Ghanaian immigrant playing professional soccer, or a 14-year old Korean-American woman joining the golf tour, the same cannot be said for the vast number of young black males who have attempted to cash in their athletic talent for riches and fame. Are these varied reactions a reflection of differences in race, class, immigrant status, or sport?

I am unsure why the sports world stood in awe at the mere sight of a young golfer and soccer player. Is this the same country that frets every time a young black male skips college for the riches of the NBA? Is this the same sports establishment that prints scorecards of the success and failures of those who jumped straight to the NBA as a warning against turning professional? The thought of numerous articles condemning Kobe Bryant or young golfer Tyson Chandler for their career path, compared to the media love fest with Wie and Adu perplexes me more than the icing rule in hockey. Is it OK for athletes to turn professional prior to securing their driver's license if they come from immigrant families that fulfill our cultural belief in the American dream? Do you have to be Horatio Alger to turn professional before your prom? Perhaps I missed recent legislation that legitimized teenage sports stars as long as they are not black and do not have sagging shorts, tattoos and earnings? Surely, Adu appears black to the average American, given are association between skin color and race. Adu, however, reflects a different sort of blackness, as American pop culture continues to center urban black males as authentic black subjects. Adu thus complicates our notion of black bodies as an African immigrant who plays soccer.

As race and identity surely affect the ways in which various athletes are condemned or celebrated, their chosen sport also plays a role. Neither golf nor soccer holds a similar importance to basketball, nor do they possess similar place within our cultural consciousness. As respected and already controlled spaces of athletic mores/rules, golf and soccer do not require as much internal and outside regulation as basketball. Can America only accept young athletes if they are involved in comparatively "gentle" sports that presumably do not require control or surveillance from both referees and rules committees? We can handle Wie and Adu because these predominantly white sports are imagined as safe, gentle, and self-governing, as opposed to basketball which is raw, aggressive, and street (black). So while soccer does have a referee, and it can be violent in stands around the globe, its predominance in America as a weekend activity of kids (as golf is to adults) demonstrates its alternative space within American culture. As I watched interview after interview, I wondered why their education did not matter; why Wie and Adu were prodigies and geniuses worthy of hours of praise, compared to NBA ballers so often described as thugs, immature, and in need of parents.

In a recent interview in Sports Illustrated, Phil Jackson denounced the NBA for its increased emphasis on young talent, offering rhetoric about blackness requiring white control: "It doesn't matter whether they can play or not. We've ended up becoming a service for growth. Now it's, 'We'll hire a chef, we'll hire laundry, we'll hire Mom, we'll hire somebody to come and live with them so that they can perform at this level.'" Just recently, David Stern announced that his priority in the coming years is slowing the youth movement within the NBA. While the sports world celebrates the youth movement in golf, soccer, and tennis, the opposite seems to be the case in the world of basketball.

The differences in coverage do not simply reflect the distinct identities of black youth seeking entry into the NBA, who are demonized, denounced, and policed, compared to individuals like Michelle Wie, Ty Tryon, and Freddy Adu, who are celebrated and praised as geniuses. This fact is not surprising given the meaning that race, gender, class, and nationality takes within American cultural life. The hegemonic calls for rules against high school players in the NBA reflect a racist American ethos, which compels the state to police and control young black males. The inscription of NBA ballers as "street," "ghetto," or mere thugs, compared to the varied vision of Adu as a Ghanaian immigrant, reflects this difference.

Demands that they go to college before the NBA, or suggested rule changes that will prevent their entry into the league, does not, despite claims otherwise, reflect a concern for the future opportunities of young black males, but a desire to discipline and control athletic bodies through school. At a fundamental level, we want to keep young black males out of our living rooms (and off our streets), at least until they've met some kind of preset "comeuppance" through puritanical hard work and sacrifice. School is not purely about confinement, but exists as a space of socialization, as a hoop that must be jumped through in order for white America to feel comfortable about our sports heroes. Wie, as an Asian American female golfer, and Adu, as a black African soccer play, do no require these steps of control, as they do not represent criminals/thugs/danger within the white imagination.

Such restriction additionally elucidates the ways in which young black males represent commodities in ways that athletes dominating other sports (a majority of who are white given the history of exclusion within those sports) do not. Why should we be surprised that TV networks, college presidents, and others want young black males to attend colleges where their labor can be exploited prior to entry into the league? Nobody will profit off Freddy Adu playing college soccer or Michelle Wie going to Stanford, so let them turn professional. While college sports are increasingly big business because of relationships with sponsors and advertisements and publicity gained through Bowl Games and March Madness, neither soccer nor golf offer schools, shoe companies, agents, or television significant levels of income.

As America pushes/mandates school attendance from its future basketball players, and not those already in the middle class, its larger policies reflect a systemic disinterest in education. Whether in policies like "all children left behind," which reveals how mandatory standardized testing reflects systemic educational inequality, rather than alleviates it, tracking, the systemic dismissal of high-risk students, and the under funding of schools for the sake of prison and military strength, America has shown little interest in educating urban black youth.

As a soccer player and golfer, Adu and Wie are already low on American sports radar. While certainly not off the map, considering the recent hoopla, neither sits at the elite level of sports. Surely, the lack of interest in these sports, and their often-mentioned immigrant identity, play into the absence of discussions surrounding the rise of these 14-year-old athletes. Moreover, the realities of race inside the Untied States, it's meaning within the sports world, and the racialized discourse surrounding the NBA, equally explain the varied reactions. Ultimately, neither Wie nor Adu are seen as reflective of the country's troubled (black) youth, allowing them to enter the world of professional sports free from critique or surveillance.


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