LeBron James is considered by many the best high school basketball player in America. Since Sports Illustrated plastered his picture on their cover, this young man's life has been out of control.
In June, he will become the number one pick in the 2003 NBA draft. His team, St. Vincent-St Mary of Akron, Ohio, is the nation's top ranked high school team. Unfortunately, LeBron was suspended from League play because he accepted gifts that amounted to more than $100.00.
In ways, that sanction is probably a blessing in disguise, if even for a few months, LeBron will be out of the spotlight. He will have the opportunity to be a normal kid for awhile (whatever that means).
The decision to accept a gift that jeopardized his high school eligibility only sidelined him for a season. His basketball talent will probably only improve, as will his value and worth to the NBA. However, his teammates will probably not have their moment in the sun because of his choice and possibly the poor guidance of those adults around him.
LeBron James' fall from grace as a high school athlete only underscores something tragically wrong with high school sports. The problem is in the system and goes much deeper than a star athlete exercising poor judgment in illegally accepting perks in recognition of his talent and skill as an exceptional basketball player.
High school and college sports are out of control. In a growing number of circumstances, student athletes are being wrongly exploited.
Traditionally, competitive athletics were perceived as excellent venues for building character, integrity and teamwork among young men and women during their developing years. They have and still do, but some other alarming factors have infected this potential venue for growth and development.
On the high school and college level, too many athletic programs have a double standard when it comes to athletes. Too often academic life is compromised and/or amended. Social behavior that is inappropriate is too often tolerated, overlooked or minimized. When student athletes are disciplined for inappropriate behavior, they are frequently disciplined in ways that differ from the rest of the student body.
Few coaches are courageous enough to suspend a starting athlete for behavior unbecoming a student athlete. When someone has the guts to inquire, they are often given a run around.
However, there are some concerns that are even more fundamental that underscore how our system is flawed and potentially harmful to student athletes.
Recently I was taking the ferry to Bridgeport. I got involved in a conversation with a number of high school athletes. They were going skiing with their parents for the weekend.
One athlete was a senior in a very large, highly respected high school in the Southwestern part of Suffolk County. By others definition, TJ was an exceptionally bright senior and a very talented and accomplished athlete. He applied to Yale, Dartmouth, Boston College, Amherst, Columbia and Colby to name a few. He will probably get into all of them.
Over the years, he played and excelled in a variety of varsity sports. After sophomore year, he quit. He did so with the support of his parents. TJ excelled in every sport he played. He was a team player and a real gift to his team.
Unfortunately, the sports he played became almost more important that life itself. They practiced five to six days a week, depending on their game schedule. As a member of the team, TJ was expected to eat, drink and sleep whatever sport he was playing.
Initially that was okay with him, and for a brief moment, pretty cool. That attitude changed as he started to have no life. He missed his family meal almost every night of the week, to the point where his parents were becoming aggravated. He and a couple of teammates raised the issue of amending the practice time so those who wanted could spend time with their families. The coach would not hear of it.
The straw that broke the camel's back came during Christmas vacation. TJ's parents were planning a very special vacation for the whole family. His parents urged TJ to ask his coach if he could be excused from practice during Christmas week without sanction.
TJ asked and was told absolutely not. He was further informed that if he did go, he would lose his starting position. His parents went ballistic. They could not believe the bold lack of respect for family. They complained to the powers in charge, but to no avail. TJ struggled with what to do. In this particular sport, he was exceptional. It could have helped him get a free ride to college.
After much soul searching, he decided to resign from the team. He did not want to compromise all the new possibilities before him. He wanted to try new and different things. He also did not want to live with the stress of every time he wanted to do something with his family, it would be a major hassle.
A growing number of athletes are being forced to choose between family, the team and normal teenage hood experiences. Competitive high school sports provide a wide range of very positive experiences. However, it is not positive or even healthy for a high school student to be forced to choose between family activities during vacation time and playing a varsity sport.
As parents, we have failed our children by allowing them to be placed in this no win situation. High school sports are not the Pros. A student's vacation is a vacation. We don't practice or play games on major religious holidays. Why is family time not sacred?
Our school administrators and school boards need to step up to the plate and protect what little family life we have. Student athletes should be encouraged to participate in family vacations during school vacations. As adults, we should not force them to choose.
As a school community, we should take the lead and model behavior that supports family life. Varsity athletics are important and can be very helpful, but should not be the top priority in a high school students' life.