On February 23, a YouTube account called TakeMyTalent posted a video of LeBron James Jr. playing basketball at the “John Lucas All-Star Weekend.”
The video was subsequently featured on ESPN SportsCenter, TMZ, Bleacher Report, USA Today, GQ, Deadspin, HuffingtonPost and too many others to mention. A week later, the YouTube video had 6.2 million views.
LeBron James Jr. is 10 years old.
The TakeMyTalent.com website is “coming soon” but has several active social media accounts and appears to be associated with Lucas Enterprises, an organization run by former NBA Player and coach John Lucas. The TakeMyTalent.com YouTube account features videos with titles like “Shemar Morrow Is The BEST 7th Grader In The World?” and “11-Year-Old Bryce Griggs GOES OFF At John Lucas All-Star Weekend!”
Today, Lucas hosts a number of tournaments and showcases for kids as young as third grade. Lucas Enterprises lists Nike, which makes LeBron James’ shoes, as a sponsor.
When LeBron James was in middle school, YouTube didn’t exist. The type of scrutiny he faced in high school is now routinely foisted on middle schoolers. There is a website that ranks basketball players who will graduate high school in 2023. LeBron James Jr. ranks first.
The son of the best basketball player on the planet is going to get more attention than your average fourth grader with a jump shot. But the explosion of interest around James Jr. reflects a troubling pattern of professionalizing sports for younger and younger kids. “Rivals.com recently added two sixth-graders to its football database,” the LA Times reported last month. Last year, Kentucky’s football team offered a scholarship to a seventh grader. College baseball teams, including USC and UCLA, are also aggressively recruiting middle schoolers.
Before LeBron James Jr., the next LeBron was a middle schooler named Demetrius Walker. Pulitzer Prize-winning winning author George Dohrmann started shadowing Walker when he was 9-years-old to chronicle his journey through the youth sports machine. (Five years later, Sports Illustrated dubbed Walker “14 going on LeBron.”)
In his book, For The Love Of The Game, Dohrmann detailed the tremendous pressure placed on Walker and some of his contemporaries from the time he was James Jr.’s age through their graduation from high school. Walker’s hoop dreams never panned out. He bounced around a few college teams but was kicked off his last team and is now 24 and out of the game.
“It’s definitely child abuse,” Dohrmann said in an interview with ThinkProgress.
Dohrmann said that LeBron James Jr. might be an example of a rare kid with the support system that will allow him to survive the maw of youth basketball. He has a father who understands the system, is used to the attention and doesn’t need the money. He’s likely to get a coach who understands the game and even if he doesn’t he has his dad, one of the greatest basketball minds in history, to show him the way.
But the other 49 kids on the fourth-grade rankings might not be so lucky. “From a basketball perspective, the target is on their back. They start to believe they cannot fail. This is a really horrible thing because the foundation for success is failure,” Dohrmann said. Under intense scrutiny, young players start thinking about what people will say if they make a mistake. “So they start taking less risk. It feels better not to screw up. So they start retreating in a lot of ways.”
The issues extend beyond the basketball court. Dohrmann said in reporting on youth basketball for nine years he observed kids “become more isolated as players and people because they are so concerned about how they are perceived.” Over time “it is really damaging to them. They lose friends. They have a hard time connecting with other kids.”
Another common problem is overconfidence. “They think they are a finished product. ‘Hey, I’m on YouTube and I have 10 million views, I’m the real deal.’ But you are in fourth grade. So they don’t work as hard.”
LeBron James spoke to these issues, to a degree, when he complained to the media recently that college coaches were already recruiting his son. “Yeah, he’s already got some offers from colleges,” James said to a Detroit radio station. “It’s pretty crazy. It should be a violation. You shouldn’t be recruiting 10-year-old kids.”
Dohrmann thought it was unlikely that James Jr. received a formal offer, which wouldn’t be binding anyway. But the interest in James Jr. from colleges is real. When he was just nine, Ohio State coach Thad Matta said James Jr. was “on his radar.” Last year, Kentucky coach John Calipari showed up and watched one of James Jr.’s game.
But does LeBron James have the high ground? When Calipari showed up to watch his son’s game, LeBron sat right next to him. Interest in his son’s skills first skyrocketed in December when LeBron tweeted a highlight reel of his son competing in the Fourth-Grade National Championship to his 19.1 million followers. Clips of James Jr. and his brother, who is seven, playing basketball have been featured in several of LeBron’s commercials.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) December 22, 2014
Dohrmann said James’ actions raised a number of questions. “Does LeBron James’ kid really need to play in a fourth-grade national championship? Is that important to his basketball development and his personal development? Why is there a fourth-grade national championship?”
What fourth graders really need, according to Dohrmann, is not intense scrutiny but time and space to develop their skills. “You would think that LeBron knows that the most important thing is to play fundamental basketball and skill development. It’s disappointing that he’s putting them [his kids] into the machine,” he said. The issue is not so much the impact on James Jr., who is an outlier, but the message is sends to other parents.
Purely from the standpoint of athletic development, forcing young children into high-pressure, year-round competition in a single sport is not ideal. Many parents have latched onto the concept, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, that you need 10,000 hours of practice to master anything. But the actual research says that early specialization doesn’t work for most kids. Instead, kids should be encouraged to experiment with a variety of sports for a longer period of time.
So if making a spectacle out of fourth-grade players is a problem, what can be done? Dohrmann’s answer seems like a longshot: “You just have to not click. You can’t click on something says that this is the greatest fourth grader in the country. You have to respond with your mouse and trackpad. As long as people continue to click on them people are going to make them a priority.”