Well rounded

One of the hardest things about being a sports fan is coming to terms with the larger-picture societal impact of sports and the money pumped into it. This is especially important when it comes to sports and children. While modern society protects children from being exploited by business before they’re old enough to make an informed decision on the matter, we have a curious tendency toward treating the business of sports as exempt from these protections.

In the US, the college athletics system does a decent job at protecting a lot of athletes from being taken advantage of. Most athletes end up in college for four years and the NCAA at least tries to emphasize graduation rates and academic progress as a priority. That we have articles each year decrying and publicizing those programs which have lousy graduation rates also shows the general public awareness and expectations regarding the issue.

All that said, we don’t have many college athletics programs (especially in the sports which generate professional athletes) which are truly excellent academically. So it’s nice when an article praising a college team I support comes out. It’s one thing to support a team. But I get an extra boost of pride knowing that my team is more than a team.

“Every player I have thinks he’s going to be a major league player, but I’ve only had five or six who have made enough money to never have to work again,” Marquess said. “Obviously, we want to go to Omaha and win the national championship.

“But what I tell all our players is I could be the worst coach in the world, and I won’t keep you from being a major leaguer if you’re that good. The thing that I have to make sure happens is they get their Stanford degree. That’s my job and that’s my greatest reward.”

As much as the baseball program is intended to train professional athletes, Stanford realizes that its duty is really to the large percentage of kids who don’t make it to the show.

Which takes me to international soccer. As much as I am a fan of soccer, it has bothered me for a long time that many of the best players become professional around age 17 and that anyone over 25 is borderline old—very different to how US athletes are expected to progress with their professional careers (which start at age 22 once they leave college). I’ve never really understood how the youth programs work and what happens to those kids who are effectively failures by age 20.

I may not have wanted to actually know the answers. There is a whole shadow industry set up to traffic kids to the big soccer teams. It’s especially bad in Africa but it’s clear that the quest for youth from Europe isn’t looking too closely at the source of the youth.

Across Europe and in the Middle East, makeshift soccer “academies” are cropping up, promising to take in promising young African athletes and transform them into world-class players. But these academies are often far from what they seem. The recruiters prey on families who need money, who have worked hard to give their children opportunities, and who believe in the natural talent of their sons.

The system is bad enough that some soccer fans are rethinking how they should invest their fandom. I can see the point. Beyond the emotional investment, we spend a lot of money on jerseys and gear for the teams we support. I have a hard enough time with the Nike swoosh on my jerseys. It’s gutting to think that that may actually be the least-evil of the logos on the shirt.

As a fan of FC Barcelona, the integrity of the youth academy is especially important. La Masia is in many ways the heart and soul of the club. It, its style of play, and that the first team consists of such a large percentage* of trainees is what we take the most pride in. With Barça’s on-field success, there have been dozens of articles about how well La Masia trains soccer players. I’ve finally seen an article about how it treats its residents in non-soccer matters.

*eight of the usual eleven starters. Plus the coach.

I was very pleased to see how similar the point of view is with that of Stanford Baseball.

Interestingly, comparatively little time is spent playing football: training takes around 90 minutes a day, with a 90-minute game at the weekend – half the time, Folguera says, spent by top youth academies in England. The rest is spent on education and a few leisure activities, with the idea being that given about 10 per cent of La Masia make it to the senior team (although another nine per cent play in first division sides worldwide), the years spent there for those fail to make the grade are not wholly wasted.

“One of the things that makes me proudest is that so many of our young players have university educations,” Folguera points out. “In England, when a team selects a young talent, they don’t take care of that side of things. We aren’t just there to teach them football, we’re there to educate them. “From 11 to 18 La Masia is their home, we have to get to know them and teach them, be their family.”

And I felt the same surge of pride when I read that article. Like everyone else, I ended up supporting the teams I do for various non-rational circumstantial reasons. It’s very nice to find out that my trust has not been misplaced. I enjoy being proud of my teams for their behavior both on the field and off of it. It keeps me from treading the dark path toward being a hyperpartisan fanatic.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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