A Parent's Dilemma: How to Handle a College Football Scholarship for a Seventh-Grader

Filed under: Sports

Put yourself in the shoes of David and Denise Sills. Fair warning, this will take some doing.

For the most part, the Sillses are a typical family. They live in Wilmington, Delaware. They have three children, all teenagers.

The two oldest are girls. The youngest is 13-year-old David. He's in the seventh grade and plays quarterback on the middle school football team at the Red Lion Christian Academy.

Apparently, David is pretty good at football because something unheard of happened last week. The University of Southern California, a college football power, offered him a sports scholarship. Trojan coach Lane Kiffin made the proposal and, with his parents' blessing, David accepted.

There are a few strings, of course. First, David has to graduate from high school. Before that, he has to graduate from the seventh grade. If all goes as planned, David's first game in a USC uniform will be in 2015.
Granted, it's hard to imagine your 13-year-old getting home from school, slamming down his backpack and asking permission to accept a USC football scholarship. (When my sons were that age, the big sports questions at our kitchen table were: "Where's my uniform?" Followed by, "Is it washed?" )

But if it happened in your family, what would you do?

David and Denise Sills have taken some heat over their decision to let David become the Trojans quarterback of the (somewhat distant) future. As the story has been picked up by national media, they've been skewered for being pushy sports parents. One writer, Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles quipped: "I was feeling as though I needed to take a shower after mulling Sills' verbal commitment."

David Sills III, the quarterback's dad, hasn't seemed bothered by the criticism. Recently he told ESPN.com: "For the people that don't like kids getting recruited early, if it was their kid what would they do?...The way I look at it if David was a phenomenal mathemetician and I held him back, wouldn't that be wrong?"

Maybe. But what if David were doing math problems at the Rose Bowl in front of 100,000 screaming fans? And Brent Musburger was barking out play-by-play? Isn't that a fairer comparison?

Experts in child development and youth sports say they worry how Sills will handle the spotlight. Even more troubling to some is what the story of a 13-year-old playing footsie with a college football coach says about the state of youth sports in general.

"We're robbing children of their childhood," warns Richard Ginsburg, a sport psychologist who treats youth athletes and their families at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, in an interview with ParentDish.

"The sports industry has become tailored to giving children the hope that they have a chance to be scouted and picked. There are so many things that can go wrong: Overuse injuries, burnout, stress. Putting young bodies and minds into that kind of situation, they're just not ready for it.," says Ginsburg, co-author of Whose Game is It, Anyway? a book that helps parents navigate youth sports.

Much of the medical establishment agrees about those risks. This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics sent out its latest warning. AAP's Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness reissued a caution first published in 2000: It reads: "Children involved in sports should be encouraged to participate in a variety of different activities and develop a wide range of skills. Young athletes who specialize in just one sport may be denied the benefits of varied activity while facing additional demands from intense training and competition."

Time will tell how David Sills deals with the challenges ahead of him. Not everyone in youth sports sees what's he's doing as a disaster. Some think it actually might work out.

Linda Petlichkoff, a sport psychology consultant and professor of Kinesiology at Boise State University, says her only reservation is whether David's dream truly belongs to him.

"Are these goals actually his goals or his dad's goals?" she says in an interview with ParentDish. "If they're his, I don't think anybody should say yay, nay or put up roadblocks. That's what life's about. Set your goals ands strive for them."

Ginsburg is more skeptical. "Five years from now, maybe it's a success story. Maybe all the stars align. But he's a superstar at 13. I'm afraid the only way to go is down."

ParentDish sports reporter Mark Hyman is the author of Until It Hurts: America's Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms our Kids (Beacon Press). Have a suggestion for an article on youth sports? Contact Mark at pdyouthsports@aol.com.

Related: Couple Changes Wedding Plans for High School Football Game

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.