Most people have a dream of what they want to be when they grow up. When I was little, I wanted to be a wizard, and when that didn’t work out, I settled on being a zoologist. It took until I reached high school to discover that journalism was an OK profession, and I didn’t latch onto sports writing until my sophomore year of college.
But for young athletes, childhood dreams are swiftly becoming expectations before kids enter high school. Just this past February, Alexia Carrasquillo committed to play softball at the University of Florida. She turned 12 the next day.
Maybe this is just a reflection of the growth of athletics in the past decades. After all, the growth of the youth sports world has boomed into an international industry. Players, coaches, trainers and parents alike are investing in sports for their kids at a younger age, which is in turn elevating the level of play that we see at all levels. Maybe this is just another important step in this continual progress as athletes become more competitive and the game continues to improve.
Yet something seems wrong about turning the game into a business at such a young age. I’m sure that a college commitment doesn’t make Carrasquillo, or any other young commit, love the game any less. She might even feel more relaxed as she enters high school, unafraid to take risks without any college scouts to impress.
But she’s also already chosen her path for the next 10 years of her life. Imagine yourself at 12 years old. Did you know where you wanted to go to college? What you wanted to major in? How you wanted to live the next 10 years of your life?
When I first profiled him a year ago, the thing that struck me the most about Sam Darnold is that he’s only two days older than me. At the time, I was asking him and his parents questions about things like first-round draft picks and NFL starting gigs. It was hard to rectify the clarity and maturity of those conversations with the fact that Darnold was only a few days older than me — a sophomore at the time with absolutely no idea where the heck life would take me.
Now, Darnold is heading into the NFL Draft on Thursday while I’m just focused on passing a few finals. It’s wild to think that kids — because that’s what they are, kids — grow up into these adult expectations so quickly. I don’t think all of this is bad. Along the way, star athletes are often forced to become more dedicated and motivated individuals, and quarterbacks in particular often develop a specialized set of leadership skills.
But when I watch the draft this week, my mind is going to keep shifting back to the younger kids, the ones in middle school like Carrasquillo, who are already dedicating their lives to this expectation of athletic glory. No matter what they’ve gained, these kids have given up their childhoods for a dream that will eventually end.
No matter where Darnold goes in the draft, he’ll still call it quits within a decade or two. I don’t mean this to be cynical, because I’m sure he’ll go in the top five and land himself in the Hall of Fame by the end of his career. But eventually, sports come to an end for every athlete. And what happens afterward?
For the kids who commit to this dream when they’re 12 or even younger, there’s a shift that scares me. How do you play for fun at a young age when you’re fighting for scholarships? How do you take a game lightly when it’s the only future you know?
In my opinion, this is one of the ways Darnold moved his career in the right way. He played three sports in high school, focusing on basketball just as much as football all the way through his senior year. He had to be convinced to do elite academies as a college recruit, preferring pick-up games and his basketball team to the rigor of becoming an elite college recruit.
Darnold allowed himself to be a kid. And even as he now prepares for the draft, he can look back and feel reassured that he did this right in not growing up too soon.
This is an approach that I wish more parents and young athletes alike took. There’s no rush to grow up, no rush to commit to a college and a future. Things change, and kids get bored or get hurt or find something else they love more.
A year ago, the NCAA changed the rules of lacrosse recruiting to prohibit programs from approaching athletes before they entered high school. I hope that soon, similar rules will be developed for recruiting in all sports. Yes, playing sports at a highly competitive level helps kids to mature in many ways. But let’s help them stay kids a little longer.
Julia Poe is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” ran Tuesdays.