Abandoning Teen Athletes

Photo by Abigail Keenan

I’ve long been concerned about what we do to teenage athletes in our culture.  It's quite possible that, to borrow our colleague Chap Clark’s terms, this is one of the most systemically abandoned groups among an already-abandoned youth culture at large.

While they are launched into the public spotlight and at times given opportunities to make crazy amounts of money—on one hand every teenager’s dream—on the other hand they’'re left there in the spotlight to fend for themselves.  While we stand by and watch, they live out their adolescent awkwardness and search for identity right in front of everyone through their mess-ups on and off the court, and too often in front of the cameras.  Not to mention the family problems way beyond their control.  This was highlighted last week by the U.S. Open and the media exploitation of 17-year-old Melanie Oudin’s parents’ relationship struggles (that none of us needed to know about).

And then there’s the countless number of high school and college football players being placed on the chopping blocks this fall by eager fans, parents, and hometown communities who thrive on critiquing their performance moment by moment, game by game.  In our obsession for perfection on the field, we forget about the very real (and often very scared) 16- or 19-year-old kid inside the uniform and pads whose worth we’ve based entirely on his ability to receive, pass, or hang on to a ball.  Seriously?  And we're not even talking about basketball fans yet.

Check out this recent NY Times piece on the “early and hasty life lessons” young athletes face.  Journalist George Vecsey aptly muses, “It’'s a wonder more of them don’t self-destruct.”  I think this can be as true in small-town settings as on national television.

What are we doing to counteract this in youth ministry, with whatever kinds of athletes we have contact with?  Do we give them safe spaces to be real aside from their athletic persona in our ministries, or are we another cog in the wheel of pressure for performance?  Are we simply abandoning young athletes alongside the rest of the culture, or are we offering countercultural relationships that speak a different truth into their lives? I’d love to hear your ideas.