Friday, September 10, 2010

How early should kids turn pro?

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

Lera Solovieva was 11 years old when Norman Canter of Renaissance Tennis Management signed her to a professional contract. As The New York Times reports, Renaissance Tennis spent $650,000 bringing the young Russian girl to Miami to live and train. Four years later, she’s back in Russia, her career derailed by injuries.

But Cantor and other agents continue to cruise the junior tennis circuit looking for the next big thing. Rafael Nadal signed a professional contract when he was only 13.

However, few of the best junior athletes will become a top men’s or women’s player. About one-percent become a top 10 player. So the agents are playing a numbers game, signing 100 young athletes in hopes that one or two will become marketable stars.

Many of the young athletes will make very little money for themselves. According to the Times, these young professionals get free equipment and clothing from sponsors. They may get a $1,000 bonus for winning a tournament or $25,000 for rising into the rankings of the top 100. Most of the money, probably more than $100,000 per year, is spent on high-caliber coaching, travel and expenses.

In addition, little is known about the risks that young athletes face when they begin intensive training in one sport early in life. Some sports medicine experts say young athletes should be discouraged from "playing through the pain," because overuse injuries in growing children may create permanent damage. One study of high school students showed that those who played sports all year long had a 42% increased chance of overuse injury compared to those who took at least one season off.

Patrick McEnroe, general manager for the United States Tennis Association’s player development program, says this actually weakens American tennis. “The bottom line is, we lost a generation of players the last 10 years that should have gone to college but didn’t,” he told The New York Times.

Some top young tennis players, such as 17-year-old Jack Sock, have refused to accept bonuses or prize money because they want to maintain college eligibility. However, Sock’s choice has required sacrifices from his family.

Is this a good model for treatment of young athletes? If it is, we may expect it would work in other sports. Imagine some basketball players turning pro at age 11 or 12. In some nations, it may already work that way. Kentucky basketball recruit Enes Kantor, 18, has been under professional contract in Turkey for three years already, according to published reports.

Jeremy Tyler turned professional prior to his senior year in high school in San Diego, signing with a basketball team in Israel. However, he failed to last the season and returned home, his NBA prospects fading. Now he's off to Japan, trying to resurrect a career that for most athletes would just be getting started.

If that rule were applied in basketball, 100 players would turn professional in high school and lose their chance at a college scholarship. But only a handful of them — perhaps only one or two — would actually become a professional star. If we value education of young people more than we value professional sport, that seems a high price to pay.

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