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Outside the Lines: How young is too young?

Announcer - July 2, 2000.

Bob Ley, Host - He became a professional athlete at the age of 16. But unlike the young men taken in the NBA and the NHL drafts...

Unidentified Male - The Los Angeles Clippers select Darius Miles of East St. Louis High School.

Unidentified Male - The New York Islanders are picking Rick D. Pietro (ph), goaltender from Boston University as our No. 1 pick.

Ley - ... Bobby Convey is still in high school, his teammates players he once idolized, his world a place he once could only imagine.

Unidentified Male - Maybe going to college and doing those things for his dream, but a lot of times you can pass up a couple of other things to get your dream in life. And how lucky is that?

Ley - But even dreams have costs.

Nancy Convey, Mother of Bobby Convey - It's hard like on his birthday when you're not there. And it's hard. But when you see how happy he is and you know this is what he's always wanted, then it helps.

Ley - Today on OUTSIDE THE LINES, how young is too young?

Announcer - OUTSIDE THE LINES is presented by 1-800-CALL-ATT. Joining us from ESPN studios, Bob Ley.

Ley - After Darius Miles held his coming out press conference in early May announcing he was foregoing college for the millions of the NBA draft, he drove to the dry cleaners to pick up his tuxedo for the senior prom. It was a vivid collision of a lucrative future and an elusive childhood, a future validated for the moment at least when Miles was drafted third in Wednesday's draft, the highest selection ever for a high school student.

It was the culmination of a dream Darius Miles has every reason to expect. He was only a seventh grader when Kevin Garnett jumped from high school to the NBA. And in the years since, we have seen far less public hand wringing and much more acceptance as more young athletes make this leap.

Now there are several important things to understand about soccer. First, in the rest of the world, soccer prodigies are routinely identified at a very young age and then affiliated with pro teams. Also, the U.S. soccer establishment is now trying to mirror that aggressiveness with young American prospects, players such as Bobby Convey, whose future is as bright as Darius Miles.

Convey's experience, and that of two other high school players in major league soccer, can be wrapped up in the flag. After all, these youngsters may be World Cup stars of the future. But his career is as much a question, how young is too young?

Here's Dave Revsine.

Unidentified Male - The Minnesota Timberwolves select Kevin Garnett from Farragut (ph) Academy in Chicago.

Unidentified Male - The Charlotte Hornets select Kobe Bryant from Lower Marion High School in Pennsylvania.

Unidentified Male - DC United MLS champions select the youngest player ever signed by Major League Soccer. Welcome, Bobby Convey.

Dave Revsine, ESPN Correspondent - Bobby Convey's selection in the first round of the Major League Soccer draft by reigning champion DC United on February 6 didn't make headlines in the way Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant did when they were drafted. But in some ways, it was more historic.

At 16 years, nine months, Convey was the youngest player drafted into major North American team sports since 1963. The process of drafting Convey was set in motion a year earlier when under 17 national team coach John Ellinger (ph) told the league about the 15-year-old soccer prodigy. MLS said it wasn't interested in a player that young until a league official saw him play.

Bob Convey, Father of Bobby Convey - Ty Durbin (ph), the director of the Project 40 team, had seen him play. And he says, "Who's this number 15?" And Coach Ellinger (ph) said, "Well, that's the kid you don't want to sign. He's only 15 years old." And a lot of things started rolling a little different from then.

Don Garber, Commissioner, Major League Soccer - We spent an enormous amount of time talking to his parents, talking to him to try to get a sense of what his lifelong goals were. And it became very clear that his goals and I think the goals of his parents were that this young man wanted to play professional soccer.

Kevin Payne, President and General Manager, DC United - We watched him in the combine and certainly felt that he was a player who had some special qualities. So we thought that we, given the strength of our roster and the depth of our roster, we really felt we could afford to use a draft choice in the first round on a player who was only 16.

Revsine (on camera) - Did you have any concerns? Did you worry and say, "Am I doing the right thing as a parent by letting him do this?"

Convey - Oh, sure, you have to. It's - we knew it's what he wanted to do. But still, he's 15 years old trying to make this decision.

Revsine - While Convey's case may be unusual in U.S. pro sports, we're likely to see more of it in MLS. He's part of a program called Project 40, which is run in conjunction with the U.S. national team. Its goal is to expose top level young players to excellent competition early on in their careers.

Garber - We are very committed to it, as is U.S. soccer. Collectively, we're trying to grow the skill level of young soccer players in this country with the ultimate goal of winning a World Cup.

Revsine (voice-over) - But the responsibility for making American soccer a force internationally doesn't rest solely on Convey's shoulders. Project 40 also includes 20 other players ranging in age from 18 to 23. Each of them trained with MLS teams.

But not all of them are good enough to play in league games yet. They still get experience though with the Project 40 team, which plays clubs in the A League, soccer's equivalent to AAA baseball.

MLS' program stands in contrast to the National Basketball Association's stated philosophy on teenagers turning pro.

David Stern, Commisioner, National Basketball Association - From our narrow business interests, there's nothing better than young men spending four years developing their skills, their life skills, their basketball skills, and their ability to cope with stress, and then coming into the NBA.

Garber - The big difference between us and the other leagues is the international market in that while the NBA can say "don't play, stay in school because we don't want you in the NBA at a certain age," we can say that, and then that young person is going to go to England. And they're going to go to Germany. They're going to go to Latin America to play. And the United States of America has lost a good, potentially productive, career, soccer career for a young person.

Revsine - Players consider going abroad because many don't see high school or college soccer as suitable pipelines to the pros.

Payne - If he had gone and played another year or two of high school, it would have been a complete waste, from a soccer standpoint, of his time. And frankly, if he'd played two or three years of college, that probably would have been a waste of his time as far the soccer.

Revsine - His personal development was the other major concern. Unbeknownst to the Conveys though, United GM Kevin Payne and Coach Thomas Rongen had a plan in place before draft day, a plan that included a rather unique living situation less than three hours from Bobby's Philadelphia home.

N. Convey - We were really worried about where he was going to stay, who was going to cook for him, who was going to take care of him. And when we went down to draft day, Kevin Payne and Thomas Rongen had already decided that - they asked us how we felt about it - and they had already talked about it and asked if Bobby could stay with them.

Revsine (on camera) - Two months shy of his seventeenth birthday, without a driver's license, unable to even get into an R-rated movie without his parents, Bobby Convey packed his bags and moved to Virginia into the basement of his general manager's house and began his professional soccer career.

Ley - And when we continue, we will see if that arrangement can work and whether someone so young can adjust to working for a check with teammates in some cases twice his age.

Revsine (voice-over) - It didn't take long for Bobby Convey to make his pro soccer debut. He came in in the second half of DC United's first game of the year.

Bobby Convey, Midfielder, DC United - I didn't even known that I was going in. It was like the last 15 minutes. And Thomas just told me, I was just sitting on the bench, and he just told me that I was going in. So I didn't really have time to get nervous.

Unidentified Male - You're going to see some history here, the youngest player in the history of the league.

N. Convey - We were up in the stands. And it was against L.A. And Kelly (ph) goes to me, "Mom, I think Bobby is going in." And I went, "Oh, my gosh." And my hands started shaking. And she started cheering.

Revsine - On the field, Convey is progressing nicely. He's been an occasional starter for United. But adolescent development specialist Carl Hampton is more concerned with his off-the-field progress.

Carl Hampton, Clinical Social Worker, Northwestern University - I think it would be important for him to be part of a family structure. So it would be important for him to be living with an intact family. It would also be important for him to be involved in interactions with same-age peer group. So if there were siblings or children in the family, the key for him to sort of fit in.

Revsine - Kevin and Pam Payne, who have two daughters within a few years of Bobby's age, have served as a surrogate family, giving Bobby that necessary structure.

Pam Payne, Wife of Kevin Payne - He has the same curfew that my oldest daughter has, which is 12 - 30. But he wouldn't even stay out until 12 - 30 if he had to get up early the next morning or if there was a game. He's real responsible.

Revsine - Convey is used to being away from home. Last year, he attended high school while training with the under 17 national team in Florida.

Bobby Convey - I guess in Florida, it was still far away that you got more homesick. And I was also younger. So now it's a lot better because they're only an hour away.

N. Convey - Sometimes you wish, you know, you sit here and you wish that he was here. And you do miss him.

Revsine (on camera) - Not being there, do you feel like you're missing out on anything?

Bobby Convey - No, not really because I have family here. And my parents come here all the time. Maybe just my friends. But I still talk to them on the Internet.

Revsine (voice-over) - Moving to DC, of course, meant leaving those friends behind. And living with the Paynes has also helped ease that transition.

Bobby Convey - When I moved here, I didn't really know anyone. I just met the girls a couple of months ago. And now I'm good friends with them.

But it's difficult to come here and adjust, especially when you're in the newspaper and everything all the time, and everyone knows who you are. They're kind of scared of you sometimes. But it's OK. Now I'm making more friends.

Revsine - For most young men Bobby's age, those friendships are developed in school. But Bobby can't fit that into United's practice schedule. Instead, he receives tutoring a few hours a day after practice.

Bobby Convey - No, I just need to do these with you, the shaded ones, because I kind of know how to do them, but I did it a while ago.

I'm really going to finish high school. And everyone maybe doesn't think I am. But I'm doing stuff now. And I do a lot of work. And it's easier to do one-on-one stuff. So hopefully I'll be finishing up high school soon and then maybe doing college stuff.

No, take your space. Hey, hey...

Revsine - On the field, Convey has been a quick study.

Thomas Rongen, Head Coach, DC United - He's seeing more playing time than we had intended to early on because the lack of performance of the team and the lack of performance of players in certain positions that Bobby plays. Does he deserve it? Absolutely. Does he belong here? Without a doubt. Does he still have a way to go? Yes he does.

Revsine - As you might expect, though, Bobby is still the target of some good-natured ribbing. When he showed up late for a meeting, one teammate asked him if he was watching the teen-oriented show "Saved by the Bell." Another asked if we were from Nickelodeon, the children's cable network.

Rongen - Something goes wrong, it's Convey's fault. I mean, no doubt about it. It's like the youngest in the family. Any time there's a little drawl, it's Convey's fault.

You know, I mean, any time somebody looses something, Convey stole it. Any time we need some help with decks (ph), which the older players are very good at that, Convey is the mule. That's great too. That's the way it should be.

He's learning the hard way. He's the youngest guy. He wants them telling you - he wants to get us a 15-year-old next year so he's not the youngest anymore.

Revsine - Bobby's not only the youngest on the team. He's also among the lowest paid. Players in Project 40, the league's developmental program, make $24,000 a year plus an undisclosed amount from Nike, which is the sponsor of MLS' joint venture with U.S. Soccer.

If Bobby pans out as a player, the league may have some competition from foreign clubs when his contract comes up for renewal. Players don't get traded in international soccer. Instead, teams purchase their contract, what's known as a transfer fee. The proceeds are then split between the league, the club, and the player.

(on camera) - What's the best case scenario for MLS in all of this?

Bob Convey - That Bobby ends up becoming a great player. And in some ways, it might be sad. HE might have to play in Europe. And they would - a transfer fee or whatever - and they end up making money off him going to Europe.

Payne - Yeah, the league will benefit if two or three years Bobby gets sold for $5 million. The league would certainly make a lot of money off of that.

Now we're not doing this with the idea in mind of selling Bobby. That may happen. And it may be what he wants at some point. Our objective is to try to make our league better.

Revsine (on camera) - Regardless of whether Bobby Convey finishes his career in MLS or ends up having his contract purchased by a foreign club, both he and the league stand to benefit immensely from his success. While it may work out in this case, though, the question still remains, are young athletes who don't have much in the way of life experience prepared to experience professional sports at its highest level?

For OUTSIDE THE LINES, I'm Dave Revsine.

Ley - And that's a question that we shall explore next with a woman who competed in the Olympics at the age of 13.

Al Harrington, Forward, Indiana Pacers - If you're sitting in high school, and IBM offer you a job for $100,000 or whatever, $300,000 out of high school, are you going to go to college to take up computers? What are you going to do? You're going to take that job from IBM because after the four years there is no guarantee that that job is still going to be there.

Ley - Well, Al Harrington has been on his job with the NBA for two years after entering the NBA out of high school at the age of 18.

Joining us to discuss this topic is Donna De Varona, an Olympic gold medal swimmer, a sports journalist and administrator.

Donna, simply how young is too young?

Donna De Varona, Women's Sports Foundation, Olympic Champion Swimmer - I think too young is when you don't have the talent to compete in the league. And fortunately, when I was 13, the rules did allow me to compete in the Olympics because I held the world record.

I think Bobby's case is different because of course he's going into a professional league. And I guess the most disturbing part of this is the fact that maybe he could be sold off. I hope he has a good agent.

But he's ready. He's a prodigy.

And I think in my case, if I'd had to wait four years, I think it would have been a mistake. I was ready to compete in the Olympics at 13.

Ley - Is it just talent, though? Is that the sole barometer?

De Varona - No, I think the other thing that Bobby has in place is very attentive parents. He's been nurtured along in the MLS program with the soccer federation where he's already been playing with the team.

He's experienced their leadership and their talent. And he's also living with a family. I think all these pieces have to be in place.

Ley - Well, you see now though kids have come to expect this. Seventh grade, that's where Darius Miles was when he looks out and he sees somebody jump directly to the NBA. We're not shocked anymore. Our eyebrows don't go up anymore.

There's an actual culture of expectation on the part of 12- and 13- and 14-year-old kids that they can jump directly into the NBA. Does that disturb you?

De Varona - Well, I think that what disturbs me is if we don't have mentoring in place to bring these athletes along. I mean, if you look at Kobe Bryant, when he was drafted, it was a shocking news story. And he meant his mentor in Phil Jackson. And I think this year he's really come full circle.

But not every person I think is able to cope with a professional league or the environment without a support system. I think that's the problem with a lot of our pro sports where these young people are - they go in too young, or even in the college environment where they're exploited. They don't feel like they're going to be taken care of.

So now it's a time in our life in the United States where kids are saying, "Well, I've got to go for the money because nobody's going to protect me. There's no guarantees that anybody is going to be loyal. I might be traded away. I've got to use my talent and my abilities now to cash in." I think that is disturbing.

Ley - Well, you talk about a support system. Who's responsibility? Let's spread the responsibility around in your mind. Where does it start as far as providing that support system and ensuring and assessing whether someone is indeed capable of making that leap?

De Varona - I think it's the parents obviously. I mean, I have a little guy that loves soccer and says he wants to be the Pele of American soccer. And at night, I go into his room, and he's staring up and says, "If I don't make it all the way, I don't know whether I'm going to be happy."

And it's my job to say, "Listen, that's a gamble. And you're only 12. And we're not going to go that direction right now." Yet...

Ley - But isn't it true, though, in your situation, you've been very fortunate in your life and career and family circumstance. And a lot of these kids are coming out of very modest circumstances. And they've got economic pressures on them...

De Varona - Right.

Ley - ... and social pressures on them that you and I can't even begin to imagine.

De Varona - Right. They may not have two parents at home. Their parents may not understand the machinations of trying to hire an agent that can protect them all the way through the journey. They might be in a sport where no, they're not going to move into a home environment where they're going to have mentoring and a support system.

And I think that's more the case in sports than it is with Bobby's situation where the MLS and the sports federation, soccer federation, is really looking to his personal needs. And I think that should be a model for other sports.

Ley - But do you think that these leagues have a greater responsibility than the parents in this entire matter?

De Varona - I think they both have a responsibility. I would like to see the NBA, the football, the NFL really take care of these athletes. I think they get into trouble because there is so much money and then they have the temptations. And they really don't have the foundation to go into the pros and take care of themselves and really afterwards have a life after where they can cope with making a living.

Ley - I was watching...

De Varona - The money comes so fast.

Ley - ... Yeah. Well, money obviously is the root of all - I was watching as we were playing that piece. And you seemed to react as not just as an administrator and as a former Olympian, but as a mother.

De Varona - Yes.

Ley - What was going through your mind as you listened to Bob Convey's mother?

De Varona - Well, I have that struggle now with my son and my daughter. My son loves all sports. In fact, my Olympic coaches, George Hanes (ph) and Peter Dalen (ph), said to me, "I hope you don't let him specialize too early. Introduce him to everything. And then if he finds an irresistible urge to play one sport, let him start specializing at 10, 11, 12."

My little guy is 12 now. And he's going to go to Tony de Chico's (ph) camp in Connecticut next week. And he said, "Mom, that's what I want to do. That's the focus of my life. I want to be great in soccer."

And so it is a tug because you say if they put all their eggs in one basket and they don't make it, how are they going to feel about themselves? And that is an issue with young athletes. They have to be able to separate who they are from how they perform.

Ley - What was interesting with Darius Miles was that so many of the young men, who was drafted third in the NBA draft, he even had educators in his hometown of East St. Louis telling him, "Make the jump now. The money won't be there."

Does that disturb you that you even have professional educators reaching out to a 17- or 18-year-old young man saying, "You've got to take the move now"?

De Varona - Yes it does. I wish the NCAA and the NBA would come together. And I know the NBA is talking about a farm league. Really, our NCAA final four and NCAA basketball is the farm league for the NBA. And I would like to see mentoring programs put in place and institutionalized because somebody that young really does need help.

Ley - So you're against the idea of an NBA developmental league?

De Varona - I think we should go right back to the schools. They're all - they say they're cutting men's programs because of women's programs, and there's not enough money in the college environment.

And yet, those are our best training grounds. So the professional leagues should put money back into the educational system, which really is the farm system for the pros.

Ley - But what about kids who have really no business being in college, no interest in being in college? Shouldn't they be allowed to just make that leap?

De Varona - Yeah, I think they should. But again, I really think there should be some mentoring in place. And parents, or the individual person that's responsible for that player, should look for someone that can really protect that player's interests, male or female.

Ley - Well, Donna, thanks a great deal.

De Varona - Thank you.

Ley - Our thanks to Donna De Varona for joining us to take a look at the entire issue of how young may be too young for youngsters to turn pro. We will take a look back at John Rocker's impact in the Braves clubhouse as we continue on OUTSIDE THE LINES.

Ley - Last Sunday, we examined John Rocker's isolation in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse, a topic discussed by Jim Fragosi (ph), Jim Bouton, and Tony Gwynn.

And your thoughts from our e-mail inbox include a viewer from Townsend, Massachusetts, suggesting that, "If Rocker is feeling isolated, he has no one to blame but himself, as he clearly did not and does not think about the consequences of his actions. I disagree with Jim Bouton that winning causes harmony. In many cases, that may be true. But I think in this situation, even winning would not help John Rocker."

From Westfield, Mass., the opinion that the Braves are, quote, "Disgusting. How do they expect things to get better when John is fighting not only the media and a pitching slump, but his own teammates? The Braves should be up front with him. Either support him wholeheartedly or move him. John Rocker will cease to be a distraction the day the Braves stop letting it be one."

And from St. Petersburg, a viewer believing John Rocker is a breath of fresh air in today's boring, sterile clubhouses and athletes. And as everyone has to be straight down the middle and politically correct and not say anything controversial and speak their mind. Rocker and controversial linebacker Bryan Cox are two guys who are not afraid to speak their minds. And when they do, they get jumped by the media and fined by commissioners who have no clue."

Those thoughts sent to us online, where we invite you to log on. The keyword at is otlweekly. And for the many who have written requesting copies of our shows, a reminder that online you will find a video library of past shows and transcripts as well.

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 ESPN's Bob Ley answers the question, How young is too young?
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