NCAA BK

Phenoms' God complex is our fault

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Jen Floyd Engel

Jen Floyd Engel, selected as the top columnist in the 2012 Associated Press Sports Editors annual contest, started working at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997 and became a columnist in 2003 before joining FOXSports.com. Sports opinions? She's never short of them. And love her or hate her, she'll be just another one of the boys. Follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook.

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I waited all last week for somebody to say the obvious about high school basketball phenom Andrew Wiggins, and the absurdly prolific coverage of his college choice.

Waiting for sports journalists to connect dots between how we worshipped at the altar of Wiggins and that particular brand of awful that happened in Steubenville, Ohio, however, is a waste a time. It is not going to happen. We like our tidy little recruiting narratives, living and dying on daily updates about where an 18-year-old plans to play ball.

Here is the ugly truth: We set young people up to fail when we worship them like this.

Now some kids are like Andrew Wiggins, by all accounts a good kid with a good support system, so far impervious to this false message of invincibility being sold to him with every tweet, recruiting update and syrupy-sweet word. This is not how this goes down for every athletic phenom or for very many 16-year-olds, for that matter. All of this worship changes them.

And the very real danger is they take this message of being special and chosen as Gospel. They believe their athletic skill is a superpower. They watch the grownups in their lives treat them like gods until they believe they are.

This helps explain the seemingly unexplainable — how teenaged boys in Steubenville find themselves in a room with an incapacitated girl and decide to rape her, how more boys stand by and do not intervene, how more kids jokingly tweet and text about said rape. They were all taught that being football players made them separate and special. They believed a football coach was capable of cleaning up their messes.

This will be where somebody argues the Steubenville horror show was the exception and, of course, it is. This is not the norm in every football-crazed suburb, not how most prep athletes conduct themselves. There are abuses, sure, but not typically on this level. This argument rings false to me, a lot like arguing ‘Hey not every person who feeds on a steady diet of Big Macs, Oreos and Mountain Dews needs to be airlifted from their house by firefighters while wearing a sheet as a diaper.’

ENGEL: PLENTY OF BLAME

Steubenville rape case forces us to look at how our own behavior has contributed to this situation. Full story ...

Just because the result is not of the train-wreck variety does not mean what we did is justified or good. And so it is with these young athletes. Not completely screwing them up with our worship is not to be confused with doing the right thing or setting them up for success.

That they avoid it speaks to their character, not to our lack of trying.

This Wiggins thing had me thinking back to the documentary “Hoop Dreams.” The power of the film was in how well it portrayed the scam of the whole young athlete-big school-hangers on-agent-AAU coach-entourage system. It captured the incessant worship of their talent, the crazy moral decisions we force these kids to make as a result and how quickly we cut them loose when the talent fades.

In what may be the greatest legacy of the film, one of the kids the documentarians chronicled, William Gates, years later said: “That’s why when somebody says, ‘when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me’, and that stuff. Well I should’ve said to them, ‘if I don’t make it, don’t you forget about me.’”

But they did.

And we do.

This is the dirty part of recruiting as sport, of tagging young athletes as can’t-miss when we absolutely know many do and what happens in the aftermath. We absolutely understand the risks of worshiping at the altar of 17-year-old kids, do so anyway and then look all shocked when things get twisted with them.

We help do this. We invite this trouble. We set them up to fail when we worship young people for anything, and especially when we do so solely for athletic talent while not doing likewise for academic and musical and artistic talent.

The only real surprise is that more of them turn out like Wiggins (able to navigate being worshipped as a god without embracing this hype) than those boys in Steubenville.

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