Sporting Scouts Recruiting Kids At Age 10?

Youth sports is a good way for kids to stay out of trouble, remain active and learn about teamwork. But there is an ugly side of youth sports too. This is detailed in George Dorhmann's book "Play Their Hearts Out," which says that children as young as 10 are scouted by adults who promise big-time college recruitment or a shot at the pros, only to discard the children when the next youth superstar comes along. Host Michel Martin talks with Dorhmann and regular parenting contributors Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Coming up, it's Black History Month, and today on the program we'll begin our series of short essays by our colleagues at NPR and other guests who will tell us about their heroes of black history. First up, WEEKEND EDITION host Scott Simon, who will tell us why he picks Jackie Robinson.

But, first, our moms segment. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today, with the Super Bowl coming up on Sunday and the college basketball season in full swing, we're talking about something that is just a given in many households: youth sports.

Now, for many families, having the kids, especially the boys involved in sports is just common sense - a way to keep them active, keep them healthy and keep them out of trouble. But recently, there has been renewed attention to the ugly side of youth sports. In baseball, for example, there have been revelations that kids from poor backgrounds have been encouraged to lie about their ages.

In football, this year's Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton's selection was tainted by allegations that his father had solicited large sums from college teams who wanted his son to play for them.

Now comes George Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and senior writer for Sports Illustrated with a look at the underbelly of youth basketball, where kids as young as 11 and 12 are scouted and then as often discarded by adults who are making big money in the process. His book is called "Play Their Hearts Out." And George Dohrmann joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco.

George, thanks so much for joining us.

GEORGE DOHRMANN: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Also with us, our regular moms, Dani Tucker - who's a mother of two, including a teenage boy - and Jolene Ivey, a mother of five boys. And they're here to talk about the experiences that they've had with youth sports.

Welcome to you, also. Welcome back.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

DANI TUCKER: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So, George, let's start with you. People who follow sports probably know your work because you published a series of stories that uncovered a college basketball team's academic fraud. Now you're going much younger. You're following kids 11, 12, 13, 14. How did you get onto this story?

DOHRMANN: Yeah, I had written a few stories both when I was at newspapers and then at Sports Illustrated about sort of what I call the grassroots basketball system. And, you know, it was during the course of one of those stories that I met a guy named Joe Keller who was starting a team of, you know, 10-year-old - nine and 10-year-old boys. And it just felt like this right moment to, you know, start a journey with a young group of boys and show how this grassroots system worked. So it was just sort of, in a way, dumb luck to meet Joe Keller at that moment when he was starting this team.

MARTIN: Why do you call it a grassroots team? The official name is Amateur Athletic Union team, commonly known as AAU team. You followed this team, it has to be said, for eight years. And you agreed with Joe Keller that he would give you unfettered access in exchange for which you wouldn't publish anything until the kids were college age or in college. So you did a deep dive into this subject.

Well, you call it grassroots. What does that mean? Does it mean that anybody can start a team? Are there any rules?

DOHRMANN: Yeah. Grassroots is the word that the shoe companies used. They call it their grassroots basketball departments or divisions - you know, Adidas and Nike and Reebok. So that's the term I use. And what it really is is it's sort of the roots of the game, right? The game - it's for these nine and 10- year-old prospects getting sort of mined by these men who are attempting to make money off of them and sort of leverage their futures for big money.

MARTIN: One of the revelations that you write about in the book that have gotten headlines, number one, is that many of these coaches are just paying the parents off to get their kids to play for them. The promising kids - the most promising kids are getting showered with free stuff, you know, shoes. You talked about one kid who got, like, 20 boxes of shoes from a coach who wanted him to play for him. Is that legal?

DOHRMANN: Yeah, the unfortunate thing is that there is no regulating body. There are no rules. The NCAA, the AAU, you know, no one oversees these teams other than sort of age restrictions. So how you recruit a player, you can do whatever you want. You know, in the book I talk about, you know, coaches paying for parents to fly all over the country. They give them shoes. They give the parents gear. They give other siblings of the player, you know, gear. You know, anything you can get.

If you are one of these elite players, especially in a place like Southern California where the book is based and it's sort of a hotbed of talent, there's sort of this no-holds-barred recruiting effort that begins at a very young age.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask Jolene and Dani to weigh in. Jolene, your kids have all kinds of different interests. Some of them are really into sports. Some of them are not. Were you aware of this?

IVEY: I was not aware of this and I found it, I don't know, really interesting reading the book. It's horrifying. You hear about how college players get in so much trouble if they were to accept anything. So I had no idea that all the way down into middle school, even elementary school, kids were being seduced in this way.

MARTIN: Did you know though, that when you've gotten your kids involved in youth sports, how did it work? Was it a simple thing where he can play or he just wants to play ball for fun, that kind of thing? Or was there this undercurrent or has there been this undercurrent of, what's the word I'm looking for, competition, professionalism?

IVEY: The way I look at it is politics is everywhere. And the people who coach the kids, sometimes they are doing it because their kids maybe are really good players and they want to make sure they are coached well or maybe their kid isn't a great player and they want to make sure they get playing time. And then it becomes, you know, that the dads who are coaching or assisting the coach are the ones whose kids get to play. And actually, that's how my husband started coaching one year, because he saw what was happening and he thought the only way to get our kid to play with to help coach.

MARTIN: Dani, there's a line in this book where Joe Keller, the subject of the book, says he wishes he had a team of only single moms. Do you remember reading that?

TUCKER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And it was not said in a particularly flattering way. So I wanted to ask what your experiences have been? Your son is actually a very fine athlete. And talk to me about what your experiences have been.

TUCKER: Well, you know, we've been on both sides; football league and the basketball league. I mean, his league was just in the paper over the summer, when the guy had stole money from the league and went off to New York. So I've seen both sides. I've seen the ugly side that George describes in his book and how they play on you being a single mom, the fact that you need the help or that you would probably welcome the help.

You know, they spend so much time with their coaches. Their coaches pick them up. I never had to drop him off. They always picked him up, took him wherever he had to go. He always had cleats. I never had to buy his cleats. So, you know, as a mom, I appreciated that. But at the same time, I made sure I stayed aware of what was going on and who was around my son, because I did not want this type of guy, this Keller guy, you know, that type of coach, to be in his life.

MARTIN: What about the idea, that one of the other things that the book - when you talk about elite players is that kids develop at very different rates. You know, a kid can be really strong one minute, do really well, be really excited, but then kids get bored or they get hurt and things happen. And one of the things that George talks about in the book is that sometimes these coaches just drop these kids like yesterday's news. And I wondered if that had ever happened or if you've ever seen that happen?

TUCKER: I've seen it happen. Not to DeVaughn. He was always, you know, his coaches always said he's a good athlete, they need him. And then I've also seen the kids that were the superstars, we would call them. And those were kids who you could see them at a young age - just like George describes - you can see their talent at the age of nine and 10. But then I also saw the kids who weren't that good, who weren't getting the playing time and they were kind of pushed off to the side a lot and then ended up doing other things, you know, where their parents would kick in and coach a team of what we would call the left-outs, you know, and not necessarily always fair.

MARTIN: Were you ever worried that your son might be being exploited?

TUCKER: I was - yes and no, because I was always there. Okay, so I was worried about some of the superstar kids being exploited because their parents weren't there. Okay, as a parent, you have to be right there. A couple of kids I knew, I never seen their parents. And they should have been there because that kid would get taken advantage of.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and we're having our weekly visit with the Moms, Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey. But we're talking about youth sports, particularly the uglier side of youth sports. With us is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writer for Sports Illustrated, George Dohrmann. He's the author of the book, "Play Their Hearts Out." He follows a so-called grassroots basketball league in Southern California.

George, how can I put this, I'll just have to say it. I mean one of the more disturbing anecdotes in the book, there's a coach who's been accused of molesting his players. And one of the boys whom you come to meet in the course of reporting the book, is recruited by this coach. And he becomes aware of these allegations. And he says to his mother, I don't, you know, he's concerned about playing for this. And the mother says, you'll play for who's ever paying the rent.

I have to, you know, ask how common a scenario is that? I mean is there, there's no what, background check, there's no - to keep somebody like that from being around kids?

DOHRMANN: Yeah. I mean I think it's, it's somewhat unique. This was a very high-powered high school coach in Southern California who had his job, despite the accusation, because he beat them in court. And it was sort of understood that he was guilty but he'd gotten off, yet he was so successful that he was around. So I don't know that there are, you know, at the grassroots level, you know, it's hard to say how many pedophiles there are.

But I will say that, you know, you hit the nail on the head with the idea that there are no checks and balances for these guys. There are no background checks. I mean Joe Keller, the coach I wrote about, truly woke up one day and said, I'm going to start a grassroots team. He had no basketball experience. He didn't know how to, you know, teach the boys how to dribble or shoot or play defense. But he saw dollars and said well, this is a way for me to make money. So...

MARTIN: Tell me again? How does the money happen? What are the economics of this?

DOHRMANN: Well, there are sort of short and long-term bets if you're a grassroots coach. You build an elite team, then, you know, you get the attention of shoe companies, they will pay you money, a salary, and also give you gear to have your elite players wear your gear. There'll also be wealthy parents, they're usually the suburban, white parents who will come in and say I want my son to play with the, on the best team and the best team happens to be these, you know, 10 African-American kids that Joe Keller has recruited.

This happens all over, you know, see these teams now have, you know, one or two players and those are the - you can just say it - those are the wealthy parents who are running the team. I mean parents were giving Joe $40, $50,000 a year for the privilege of their son playing on the team.

MARTIN: Wait. Wait. Wait. Could you say that again, $40 or $50,000 a year so that their child could play on his team, 10-year-old, 11-year-old?

DOHRMANN: Yeah. They were supporting, you know, the travel of the team and paying for everything so that their son could be on the team. You know, then you have the sports agents who will get involved later. You'll have the schools whose boosters and coaches will give money to the coaches to get access to the players to ensure their recruitment into college. And then ultimately, the big payday, of course, is that you luck into an NBA player.

You know, we, in the book I talk about, you know, NBA players giving their AAU coaches, their grassroots coaches, hundreds of thousands of dollars after they make it big. That's, of course, the big payoff at the end.

MARTIN: Why do they give them this money? Do they have to give it to them? What is that?

DOHRMANN: Well, it's, you know, they don't have to. It's sort of they feel like they owe to them. This is sort of the great scam, right? They come in young and they make them feel like, you know, I'm a father figure to you, it's all about, you know, how much I care about you and I love you and I want to be a part of, you know, I going to help you succeed. Then at the end, you know, an 18-year-old kid or a 20-year-old kid says well, you know, you need a couple hundred thousand dollars? I just got $2 million, so there you go.

MARTIN: You know, Dani, you're kind of shaking your head here. And I'm wondering is this - no disrespect to George's reporting, which is thorough and deep, over an eight-year period - but you're saying, wake up, hello, who didn't know this was happening? Is this one of those stories that was hiding in plain sight, in essence, in your view?

TUCKER: Yes and no. I mean yes, what he's saying is exactly true. I've been there, seen it. Okay, but for those who haven't been you wouldn't see it. You know, those who just come to the game you don't see what goes on behind the doors. You don't see how they're trying to bait these kids, what these kids go through, you know. And especially young African-American kids who are raised by us single moms, who don't have dads, but they have the skills.

I had an AAU coach who wanted to recruit DeVaughn. He was a defensive specialist, but I could smell that this man was stinking. I'm going to take him to Richmond. I'm like, you ain't taking my kid nowhere, first of all, because I don't like your story.

But parents have to really get involved. And then I knew parents who just didn't pay any attention, because all they could see was money.

MARTIN: Jolene, you wanted to say something?

IVEY: I just wanted to say it's not the coach's job to raise the kids. It's the parents' job. That's what Dani is saying. That's what George says in his book. Parents need to pay attention. They need to be involved. Unfortunately, there are parents who put their own needs and wants and desires above what's right for their kid.

MARTIN: Dani, what you think about this? What's the take away from this?

TUCKER: It's a catch 22, because there are mothers out there, I know them, I live with them, and I can't blame them because when you're living in the projects and your kid can score 40 points in a game and you've got coaches telling your kid could be the next Lebron James, who is not going to go for that? And, you know, it's your ticket out of there. But at the same time, you have to decide whose first, your kid or what you want, or what, you know, what you - or the money. You know, you have to make that decision. And, you know, you know as much as I know how much DeVaughn wanted to be a pro athlete or thought so or, you know, what his dream was, but as some point in time I had to say, you know, we might be in this little apartment for a while, but - so be it, because I'd rather do that than to watch you sell your soul to the devil.

MARTIN: Than hand him over to somebody...

TUCKER: That's - to the devil.

MARTIN: To someone else.

TUCKER: That's the way I looked at it.

MARTIN: George, one question I wanted to ask you...

DOHRMANN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: That you look at somebody like Lebron James, okay, who does come from very difficult circumstances, was homeless for part of his youth, doesn't know his father, basketball really was his ticket out. Can you really argue with that?

DOHRMANN: I can't argue with it. I mean, of course, you know, as Dani talked about, you know, how do you blame a mother? How do you blame the mother, when this guy walks in and says I'll pick your son up from school and you're, you know, the moms working two jobs? And so I can't blame them for doing it. I think what's unfortunate is that narrative - one thing I really thought was important with the book was I wanted to show the kids that failed, right?

TUCKER: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

DOHRMANN: You know, and some people would consider the main character Demetrius to have been a failure, even though he got a college scholarship.

TUCKER: Really. Yeah. After all that hype they put on him.

DOHRMANN: Yeah. Exactly. So, you know, what I wanted to say was hey, you know, they sell this narrative, right? It's called Lebron narrative.

TUCKER: Mm-hmm.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DOHRMANN: Which is, you know, you're going to be the next Lebron. You're going to provide for your family. You're going to do all the things that, you know, Joe Keller told Demetrius and other players at a very young age. Well, it just doesn't work out for 99.9 percent of the kids.

TUCKER: Exactly. Exactly.

DOHRMANN: So, you know, at what point do we stop selling that narrative as if it's really obtainable by, you know, the thousands and thousands of kids that, you know, are dreaming that right now?

MARTIN: George Dohrmann is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He's a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He's the author of the book, "Play Their Hearts Out," and he joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Also with us, our regular Moms contributors, Dani Tucker and Jolene Ivey, they were with us from our studios here in Washington, D.C.

I thank you all so much for joining us.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

DOHRMANN: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thanks, Michel.

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