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Young Athletes Find That It’s More Than Just a Game

WASHINGTON POST

When I was a kid, my father had a saying: “Too much, too soon.” As a teen-ager, I had no idea what he meant. It just sounded like the old-fashioned words of another geezer who was out of touch with a new world.

Over time, I’ve come to understand what my old man meant. He was talking about, among others, Dominique Moceanu and Kenny Anderson. He was talking about kids who are incapable of being responsible for life’s little things, much less being handed the dangerous combination of fortune and celebrity. Too much, too soon. He was talking about a 1,500-square-foot bedroom with a 72-inch TV and a hot tub for gymnast Moceanu, who then was barely 16. He was talking about Anderson leaving college for pro basketball at 19, and a few years later paying $75,000 a year in insurance for eight cars and needing to spend $10,000 a month in “walking-around money.”

He was talking about, perhaps, half the players who’ve come into the NBA the last six years, and numerous barely-past-puberty girls in gymnastics, tennis and figure skating. Olympic skater Oksana Baiul comes to mind, as does Jennifer Capriati. He was talking about Doc Gooden and Todd Marinovich and Roy Tarpley. Even though things have turned around nicely for them, Darryl Strawberry and Tracy Austin could be included. And it doesn’t just mean athletes; anybody too young or inexperienced to negotiate life’s curves, but who has the resources trouble finds most attractive, is vulnerable. The entertainment industry probably has even more than sports: River Phoenix, Robert Downey Jr. and Drew Barrymore, just to name a few.

But Moceanu is younger than most. She is 17, and sued her parents to be declared an adult. Too much, way too soon. Too much money, too much adoration, too much indulgence, too many coaches, too narrow a life, too much travel, too many lawyers and appointed advisors. I looked at Moceanu in Atlanta, all 4-foot-7 of her, and I couldn’t help but think she ought to be sneaking into her mother’s bedroom closet to try on her pumps and lipstick, not competing on the sporting world’s biggest stage. She was 14 during the 1996 Summer Games, and I don’t care what anybody says, it was sick for her to be competing with that much pressure on that big a stage.

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Having been a sportswriter for 18 years, I’ve seen some pressure situations in Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, championship fights, bowl games, Final Fours--you name it. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen competitors under more intense pressure than in the 1998 Olympic Games in Japan, when the alternatives for Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan were to win or curl up in a ball and cry forever. I felt guilty looking at it.

What would be the motivation for 15-year-old Capriati when she was handed a trillion bucks in endorsement money before ever winning a tennis tournament? Of course it’s a blueprint for disaster. Hit more forehands? For what? I’m 15 and I’m loaded! Go to school? Why bother? Don’t shoplift? Why not--I’ve got lawyers!

Some can handle fame and celebrity. Kwan seems fine with her defeat and Lipinski has handled her victory sensibly. So far. So, thankfully, has Dominique Dawes, Moceanu’s teammate, who appears to be one of the most level-headed, priority-ordered, delightful young women you’d hope to meet. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova are evidence that everybody doesn’t have to be a shoplifting, drunk-driving, parent-divorcing mess by age 17.

Monday’s story in the New York Times detailing the way Anderson goes through $5 million or so per year was staggering. His accountant was quoted as saying Anderson “doesn’t live a life of Riley.” He doesn’t? If eight cars (the cheapest being $50,000), a house in New York and a house in Los Angeles with a pool and tennis court, and $120,000 a year in walk-around money isn’t the life of Riley, what is?

Anderson says of his resources, “I’ve got enough to hold me over.” To do that, though, he told the Times he may have to cut down to seven cars. Too much too soon. If Anderson had stayed four years at Georgia Tech with some people who were delighted to graduate and find a job for $50,000, he might better appreciate his $5.8 million salary for the 1998-99 season and know better what to do with it.

And Anderson isn’t the exception. He’s the rule in the NBA. I’ve been in conversations with players who actually ask how it is that people manage to squeeze by on “three or four hundred thousand.”

The solution to this, at least partially, is for people to not have too much, too soon. The world governing body of figure skating took the right step by raising its participation age for world and Olympic championships from 12 to 15, though 17 would be a much better idea. The International Gymnastics Federation’s raising its age requirement for participation from 15 to 16 is also a decent gesture, just not firm enough. The Women’s Tennis Association’s putting restrictions on kids between 15 and 18 is something that should have been done years ago.

The restrictions protect the kids from themselves, but, more important, from parents, overzealous coaches, media overexposure and burnout from a career they didn’t really choose. I don’t have any idea who’s on the right side of the Moceanu issue, the kid or her parents.

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But I do know that as long as parents, coaches, leagues and tournaments are obsessed with phenoms, girls and boys who ought to be thinking about prom outfits will be in the midst of drama and turmoil that even the savviest adult would have trouble handling.


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