On Friday afternoon, a 19-year-old kid, like millions of 19-year-old kids before him, did something stupid in Amsterdam. Justin Bieber, who was 12 years old when Peyton Manning and the Colts beat the Bears in the Super Bowl, went to visit the Anne Frank House and, obviously awed and humbled by the experience, signed the guestbook:
Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber
(I'm pretty sure I saw this in a Mr. Show sketch -- one that's older than Bieber, by the way.)
As it turns out, a 19-year-old kid whose puberty coincided with the precise span of time that millions of people screamed loudly about how they would like to sleep with him has a somewhat outsized view on his own importance, and a limited understanding of global conflict, profound suffering and the eternal helplessness of the human condition. I wonder how in the world that could have possibly happened.
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Everyone this morning is talking about Adam Scott and his Masters win, along with Angel Cabrera's graciousness in defeat. But that's not what they were talking about all weekend. The two main topics coming out of Augusta's lone weekend of showcasing those weirdos and their creepy golf club:
- Tiger Woods and that whole business with the wrong-drop penalty. My favorite part about this story is not that a viewer called in the penalty; it is that the reason Augusta officials even noted the offense in the first place was because Tiger had said he moved his ball in a post-round interview. As if athletes needed another reason to avoid the press, now they're actually retroactively losing because of what they say to us. If I were an athlete, I think I might conduct all interviews through a sock puppet.
- Tianlang Guan.
Yeah, the only questions non-golf fans were asking: "Is Tiger winning?" and "Is that 14-year-old gonna make the cut?" Guan did make the cut, becoming the youngest man-boy to ever make the cut at a PGA Tour event. Of the eight other youngest golfers to make a cut, seven of them happened this century. This is not a coincidence.
We are a culture that is obsessed with youth, with preciousness, with talent that's almost a random thunderclap from the gods … with prodigies. This is hardly limited to sports -- from a young Ted Kennedy to Barack Obama to Marco Rubio, we're always looking for the next hot thing in our leaders, half of the technology you use every day was invented by someone who wasn't born when you had your first beer and the world of entertainment is eventually going to give a Grammy to a zygote -- but it's most evident there, considering how young all the "normal"-aged competitors are. Prodigies are, in many ways, the currencies of sport, what drives the whole industry.
Magazines and websites fall all over themselves to declare the next sports superstar you've never heard of, from LeBron James to Brien Taylor to Bryce Harper, and that would seem shadier if the entire world of college basketball recruiting wasn't built on a foundation of middle-aged coaches carrying clipboards and wearing whistles staring creepily at 13-year-olds, salivating at how much growing they expect them to do in the next few years. ("Hoop Dreams" feels more relevant every day.) The half-life of an athlete's career is so short already -- the average age of an NFL player is barely old enough to rent a car -- that the only logical place to look for high-value future investments is in the barely pubescent. As we, as a culture, continue to look for increasingly extreme events to justify being able to call anything "new," weary of endless Best INSERT NAME OF EXPERIENCE HERE Ever proclamations, the only place to go is to search for precocious underachievers. We want them to accomplish what we could never accomplish before they realize they're accomplishing it: They simultaneously serve as both a replacement for our own lost youth and as smug congratulations for how much more we would appreciate it, if it were happening to us.
But the one person we forget about in all this is the prodigy him or herself. In a terrific essay in The New York Times Magazine last year (adapted from chapter in his book "Far From The Tree"), journalist Andrew Solomon wrote about how the word "prodigy" itself is from the Latin prodigium, a "monster that upsets the natural order." They are, in every possible way, not like you or me, in large part because we never allow them to be anything other than a prodigy. We treat them like adults. But they are children. Or, as Solomon put it: "Every prodigy is a chimera of such mastery and childishness, and the contrast between musical sophistication and personal immaturity can be striking. One prodigy I interviewed switched from the violin to the piano when she was 7. She offered to tell me why if I didn't tell her mother. 'I wanted to sit down,' she said."
The more and more I saw of Tianlang Guan this weekend, the more I thought of Aaron Swartz. Swartz was the tech genius who invented RSS code when he was 14 and killed himself earlier this year, at the age of 26. As chronicled in stories in the New Yorker and The New Republic, Swartz was considered a hacker savior years before he had any idea who he might be as a human being. It might not have been what led directly to his suicide, but it certainly didn't give him a healthy, mature viewpoint of what life meant, what was important, what kind of person he really was. How could it? Being locked into a persona or a career at the age of 14 is insane; I'm pretty sure if I were stuck with what I wanted to be when I were 14, I'd still be striving to be the lead broadcaster for the St. Louis Cardinals, and also an astronaut. No matter how smart we might be, the fact is, when we are 14, we are extremely stupid. The problem with prodigies is not their talent; it's that adults are constantly telling them their talent is all that matters. Look at Aaron Swartz. Look at Justin Bieber. Shoot, look at Tiger Woods. Do those look like people who have a good perspective on how the world works? Do those look like happy people to you?
Perhaps I'm being alarmist here; the Williams sisters, LeBron, Wayne Gretzky … they were all prodigies, and matters have turned out well for them. (Though I'm still not sure any of them could navigate a subway map or change a tire.) Tianlang Guan looks like a solid, normal kid to me. But: I have no idea and don't have any business passing any sort of judgment on some 14-year-old I've only seen on TV anyway. We all do it, though, and we all just clamor to do it some more. We'll probably never stop. It'll be up to them to deal with the ramifications of it.
When I was 14 years old, I was a drooling moron, and nobody anywhere cared one lick about anything I was doing. Thank God.
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All right, this is my first day as a full-timer at Sports On Earth. I'm ecstatic to be here. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow me @williamfleitch or just shout out your window real loud, I'll hear you. Point is, let's talk.