Professional athletes sometimes fail under pressure. They buckle, like a belt. Names like Bill Buckner, Ryan Leaf and Scott Norwood are part of the sports vernacular following poor performances on a national stage. It’s an unfortunate necessity of sports – for every hero, there is also a goat. Some handle failure better than others, but professionals, and even collegiate athletes, are expected to handle themselves with a certain level of dignity, regardless of result.
But is it fair to expect high school athletes to display the same maturity? ESPN seems to think so.
ESPN Rise is a new high school sports content initiative aimed at capturing the elusive 12- to 17-year-old viewer. Launching this summer, it signals an increase in high school sports coverage across television, print, mobile and Web media. ESPN programming staples like Sportscenter, ESPNews and College Football Live are dedicated segments specifically for high school athletes, ESPN the magazine will begin printing Rise columns on a regular basis and high school games will be televised nationally. Every sports fan using ESPN in some fashion for sports news now can expect to hear of high school prospects years before they play at a collegiate or professional level.
Lebron James was a national star even before he played a minute in the NBA. He was "King James," basketball’s savior, the next Michael Jordan. Fans could see him play on ESPN2 during his senior year of high school. Despite the hype, being the first overall draft pick and bearing the weight of outrageous expectations, James became an elite player in the NBA. He’s displayed a rare maturity and media savvy not often seen in athletes at any level. This man is an example of why ESPN Rise could be an entertaining addition to ESPN. History has proved though, that James is the exception, not the rule.
So what happens when young athletes don’t respond to early fame with the same grace as James? Prep stars who are considered the "next big thing" can find themselves surrounded by agents, yes men and other forms of coattail cruisers attempting to get a piece of the financial windfall the athlete is sure to receive. New Orleans running back Reggie Bush, believed by many to be the next Gale Sayers, has been surrounded by controversy during his fledgling NFL career due to allegations of illegally receiving gifts during his tenure at USC. Washington Husky fans can recall the scandal involving quarterback Billy Joe Hobert, in which he took a loan during his time at U.W. with the promise of repaying it during his NFL career. Former USC shooting guard and current Memphis Grizzlies rookie O.J. Mayo is presently under investigation for accepting gifts during his nationally covered college career.
Of course, not all college athletes fall prey to these temptations. Under the umbrella of ESPN Rise, high school athletes will face the same pressures but might lack the level of maturity needed to say no to them. If a 16-year-old has a swarm of Internet bloggers and message boards proclaiming his unparalleled skill and boundless future, then the same poor decisions can be made and likely with higher frequency. Bribery and collusion aren’t the only risks they face.
What happens to a high school athlete using performance-enhancing drugs in an attempt to gain the national notoriety available on ESPN Rise? The use of anabolic steroids has reached high schools. Steroid abuse is an issue that has been beaten into the ground the last couple of years but it remains a problem that needs to be dealt with. It would be a tragedy to see high school athletes have their careers or their lives cut short.
Former Washington State Cougar quarterback Ryan Leaf is an example of another pitfall. After being picked second overall in the 1998 NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers, he immediately was penciled in as the starting quarterback. After a series of disastrous performances, Leaf began lashing out at the media, ultimately throwing public temper tantrums on a regular basis. He became a punch line, widely recognized as one the biggest draft busts in NFL history. If a man can play three years of college football and enter the professional ranks utterly unprepared to deal with the media after a bad performance, how is a high-schooler going to handle it? And Leaf is not a rarity (See the Cincinnati Bengals’ roster).
If a prep star misses a game-winning shot on national television, can he handle the interview afterwards? Teenagers aren’t known as a levelheaded group and national scrutiny could be dangerous. If he has a meltdown, how is this young athlete expected to return to school the next day and concentrate on his education with his face all over Sportscenter?
This new experiment is not completely without merit and possibly could yield good results. Some youths are able to handle the pressure and attain superstardom at a young age and eventually become successful pros. The increased coverage can give smaller schools that are typically overlooked by scouts more attention, possibly allowing those scouts to discover talent in new places. This seems somewhat unlikely though since scouting is such an inexact science in all sports at all levels.
Hopefully, ESPN has considered the worst-case scenarios of ESPN Rise and not solely the revenue this new initiative will garner. High school can be a tough part of everyone’s life and student athletes are certainly no exception with the unique set of challenges they face. The risks seem to far outweigh the rewards. Perhaps ESPN is trying to fill out its programming schedule with more human-interest stories about pro prospects that never made it due to the perils of early fame. For now, though, perhaps the focus should remain on the athletes who have made it to the professional ranks and are more prepared for the spotlight that comes with it.
It isn’t worth the destruction of careers to reap the rewards of unearthing the next Lebron James.