Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The world figure skating championships are under way in Sweden, but the U.S. women's champion is not competing. Commentator Frank Deford says it's another sign of the times.

FRANK DEFORD: That American champion is Mirai Nagasu, who is 4-feet-11, and, if you can believe this, all of 78 pounds. Miss Nagasu is also a mere 14 years old, which is too young to qualify her for the worlds.

What sense does it make to ban her? After all, she proved in legitimate competition to be the best figure skater we have, so what does her age matter? Besides, like it or not, she's part of a trend in American sport for athletes to be more accomplished at a younger age, as more attention is devoted to children's competition.

Kids are better than ever at sport. To start with, they mature physically earlier. They have more sophisticated coaching. And because they can study the best athletes on television, they learn better and more quickly to copy advanced skills. Abetted by adults, they're often encouraged to dedicate their young lives to sport, to the general exclusion of school and a normal childhood itself.

The national sporting press has encouraged the emphasis on high school sports by giving them a national stage. Seizing on our mania for polls, the newspaper USA Today led the way. It started publishing the national rankings of high school teams, and the likes of ESPN and Sports Illustrated have joined in. McDonald's chooses All-America teams, making national celebrities of these kids.

Listen, we have always had a passion for high school sports. It's no different from why we Americans alone emphasize college sports. Athletics gives glamour and identity to the college or to the town's school.

But what has changed is that it's a national show now. Isn't it enough for a team to win the county championship, a kid to make all-city? No longer. Now school teams travel the land, modern day vaudevillians, playing one-night stands hundreds, even thousands of miles away from home. There are all sorts of national post-season all-star games, even high school football bowl games.

Not everybody is happy with this development. In particular, women's figure skating, which was once the most popular female sport on TV, has plummeted in the ratings as the tiny teens have taken over the sport, jumping about the ice but being unable to display the grown-up grace and elegance once featured by Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill or Kristi Yamaguchi.

And from a more substantive point of view, at a time when educators are struggling to keep American boys in school and to interest them in college, where young women now predominate, the increased glorification of school sport is surely counterproductive to education for boys.

The irony is that for so long, so many Americans have decried the emphasis on college sport. What has happened is that instead of that being remedied, the very sins of college athletics are now being passed down to high school.

INSKEEP: Comments from Frank Deford, whose latest novel, "The Entitled," has been released in paperback.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford