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August 26, 2014 at 6:09 AM

Lakeside basketball and Steve Ballmer, just the latest symptoms of a bigger problem

It’s bad enough that many college athletes are callously manipulated in the money-saturated world of intercollegiate athletics. Society considers young adults old enough to advocate for themselves.

But when high school teens – inexperienced in self-advocacy – are used in the same exploitative manner, something has fundamentally broken in American society’s basic educational promise to its children.

That broken promise was laid bare last week when Seattle Times reporter Mike Baker detailed how area billionaire Steve Ballmer created a foundation to recruit talented minority child basketball players to play for Lakeside School’s basketball team.

According to the report, recruiting and academic standards were loosened in order to stock the team with high-level players. In some cases they were provided lavish Steve Ballmeraccommodations. In others, child athletes weren’t even required to maintain a core level of classes.

The tactic paid dividends, with Lakeside going from a winless season in district play to the state championship game in five years.

But Lakeside, a Seattle private school known for educating Bill Gates and Paul Allen and for maintaining an impeccable academic reputation, and Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO who indulged his hoops whimsy at his children’s school, are but sideshow attractions in the rampant athletic exploitation of children.

Other schools – public, private and coast-to-coast – have indulged in the flagrant use of children for sporting purposes.

Locally, Chief Sealth High School coaches violated recruitment rules to build a West Seattle girls basketball juggernaut in 2006, Garfield High fired its athletic director in 2011 for faking grades of star athletes including basketball player Tony Wroten Jr., Kent-Meridian High School was forced to forfeit a season of victories in 2013 for fielding an player who’d used up his athletic eligibility, and Jefferson High in Federal Way faced having 36 football players ruled academically ineligible in 2011.

In each situation, including Lakeside, scores of adults benefited from the exploitation of children for their athletic entertainment potential, but no grownup was there to defend or advocate for them.

Recruiters and sport camps get paid for identifying and coaching up talented kids, the grade schools and colleges the athletes attend use student athletes to create lucrative sport programs, and the NBA benefits by getting readymade players.

But the athletes, who’ve spent their lives training to entertain, have often been neglected a base level education in the process.

Renowned University of California at Berkeley sports sociologist Harry Edwards likens the process to a modern day slave trade.

“It’s an almost intractable situation, and everybody has hands on the tiller guiding this kids’ fate and telling him ‘As long as you develop as a basketball player, you’ll be ok, and there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,’ ” Edwards said. “Usually, there’s no pot of gold. And there’s nobody saying ‘Academics are important’.”

It may surprise some that parents are among the first to feed from the child athlete trough, especially those from impoverished backgrounds. In such situations, it’s common for the parents to see the potential of their child athlete as a way out of poverty for the entire family.

And while it is true that just the path to and promise of becoming a professional athlete is far better than the environment many of these families are in, that promise rarely pays off and often comes at the expense of the child’s education.

Barring league expansion, there are never more than 360 players in the NBA at one time. And around 60 are taken each year in the draft. Conversely, the National Science Foundation reported that an average of 1,148 U.S. college graduates earned math Ph.D.’s each year from 1998 to 2008.

So a child is more likely to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics than make it to the NBA. And the unemployment rate for mathematics Ph.D.’s has got to be a shade better than that of poorly educated, failed professional basketball players.

Sadly, too many poor minority families feel compelled to serve their athletically gifted children up to a process that’s more likely chew them up and spit out than prepare them for a life of middle-class independence.

Left academically crippled and without a career, the children often end up as cultural refuse; more likely to become a burden on society than a contributor to it.

For every LeBron James – the high school-to-pro phenom who ranked last year as the third highest paid athlete in the world – there are dozens of Doug Wrenn’s, the below-average high school student and above-average UConn and UW basketball player who derailed his career with a series of off court infractions including shoplifting sneakers and brandishing a gun during a road rage traffic dispute.

And for every Michael Strahan – the loquacious former NFL player turned morning TV host – there are countless Dexter Manley’s – the former NFL defensive end who testified before Congress that he was illiterate.

If the country doesn’t want its streets littered with poorly educated, failed and frustrated would be athletes, it’ll prioritize education over entertainment, and stop baiting children with the biggest sucker bet in America – a career in professional sports.

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Comments | Topics: basketball, Lakeside, Steve Ballmer

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