This morning, three names dominate my sports news wires.
Shabazz Muhammad was kicked out of the NBA's rookie symposium -- meant to help new players transition into the world of professional basketball -- for having an "unauthorized visitor" in his hotel room. The "female guest" was a rule violation, and Muhammad was sent home. He'll have to repeat the symposium next season.
Johnny Manziel is practicing with his team in College Station, Texas, while the NCAA investigates whether or not he received money for signing autographs, various students wonder aloud whether he's disgracing his university, and ESPN presumably rifles through one of his underwear drawers.
Bryce Harper led to one of the more riveting ESPN.com headlines you'll ever see -- "GM Decries Tweet" -- after he was hit by a pitch from Atlanta's Julio Teheran. Harper had just homered off Teheran and admired it a little too much for the Braves' taste. Harper's homer led to the official Twitter accounts of the Braves and the Nationals fighting, which is sort of a hard thing to wrap your mind around. It's just another Harper Controversy.
Here are the birthdays for the preceding three gentlemen:
Muhammad: November 13, 1992
Manziel: December 6, 1992
Harper: October 16, 1992
Three athletes were born within two months of each other when Quentin Tarantino released Reservoir Dogs, when Sinead O'Connor was ripping up a picture of the Pope on "Saturday Night Live," when this guy was one of the biggest rock stars in the world. It wasn't very long ago. These three men are extremely young. None of them can legally buy a beer. Only one of them was alive before Bill Clinton was elected President. Combined, they are younger than Bill Belichick. And they are among -- and have been, for a few years now -- the most discussed, targeted and lambasted athletes in big-time athletics. At least Alex Rodriguez is a grown adult. (Biologically, anyway.)
For a long time, whenever we would talk about athletes as young as Harper, Muhammad and Manziel, their youth and preciousness was always at the center of the conversation. It was so unusual, so stunning that someone could be so brilliant at athletic endeavors yet so inexperienced in the ways of the world; we sort of looked at them like they were Mozart, blessed with thunderbolts of talent at an age when they couldn't possibly comprehend it. They were piano prodigies who could jump. We used to cut them a break.
Not anymore. In all three of those wire stories above, the fact that the players are just barely out of their teenage years isn't mentioned. It is all about the trouble they are causing, or how immature they are, or how they're serving as a distraction with all their me-first-ism. Their offenses: Strutting after a home run, maybe signing a bunch of autographs (though really it's "going out drinking at college bars") and having a girl in his hotel room. These are all minor offenses for adults, and for 20-year-olds, they're not even that. But we have just plugged them into the system of "athlete trouble!" without even pausing anymore. We don't even bother pointing out that they're phenoms, that they're so young. You're in the jungle already, kids: Try to keep up.
This is probably the new normal. We are a culture obsessed with the fresh-faced: Finding the prodigy before anyone else does isn't just something the media does, it's something people involved in the sports themselves do. (Scholarship offers are being handed out to 12-year-olds.) We've so gotten accustomed to the churn that it's not even noted anymore.
It goes without saying -- though I'm gonna say it anyway -- that all of us who write and comment on the actions of Harper, Muhammad, Manziel and others would be mortified if what we did at the age of 20 were documented and remarked upon by the world at large. Like many people, I did things that would have gotten all three of those guys fined and/or suspended repeatedly. The advantage I had was that nobody cared what I was doing. It's the blessing of the untalented. Good Lord, if Facebook had been around when I was in college, I might still be in jail. (To be fair, I occasionally did a lot of these things at 30 as well.) I guarantee you a massive percentage of the people talking about Harper, Muhammad and Manziel did the exact same things, or worse.
But we give these men -- boys, really -- no quarter. We don't cut them any slack anymore. Thing is, too: Harper, Muhammad and Manziel are almost certainly far more mature than the average 20-year-old. They have a discipline, a vocation, a passion: They have structure and order and a legitimate skill, something they can focus on and funnel energy toward. They are not flitting about, clueless and lost like most 20-year-olds. They are the good ones. They are the overachievers. They are the positive role models.
But we don't act like they are. We look at them and are angry they aren't 45. We envy their youth. We envy all they have been given, all that we never were. And we turn it all against them, because we can. Youth isn't just wasted on the young: It's wasted on the old.
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