Some of the anecdotes are outright unnerving: conditioning coaches talking about how rookies are “Ticking time bombs,” nine-year-olds tearing their ACLs. It chronicles the absurd yearlong single sport playing schedules, fanned out between AAU teams and academic squads, constant participation fed by a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses (Or the Jordans, I suppose) mentality that pressures any ambitious player into a constant stream of work that threatens their long-term orthopedic health.
Holmes quotes NBA commissioner Adam Silver, talking about the problem in a press conference:
“I understand I shouldn't use a broad brush to criticize the entire AAU system, because parts of it are excellent. But also parts of it are very broken, especially [as it] relates to injuries in the league. What we're seeing is a rash of injuries among young players…. What our orthopedics are telling us, is they're seeing wear-and-tear issues in young players that they didn't used to see until players were much older."
Silver probably has his heart in the right place. There’s a problem, and he’s speaking on it. But the fact of the matter is, he is maybe the only person in America equipped to deal with this problem, and he seems like he’s content to do some light scolding and move on.
AAU is maybe the quintessential product of American Capitalism. There is a demand for club play, travel teams, for leagues that stack the best youth players against one another. It’s totally reasonable and natural. But in the absence of an organized, regulated system, one with stringent coach licensing, training, and strict rules about player overuse, the AAU, lubricated with sneaker money and the wild ambitions of coaches and parents who can’t see the broader picture, fills that vacuum and is more than happy to drive young players into the ground for marginal gains.
We see this kind of neglect of maintaining broader systems create suffering all over our economy. Rural nursing homes close and leave vulnerable older people to scatter in the wind, away from their support systems. A lack of centralized city planning creates a law-of-the-jungle mindset, leaving people living in low income housing at the mercy of whatever developer or ambitious politician might be looking to rezone their neighborhood or drop a freeway on top of it. We throw up our hands when climate science says we’re heading for disaster, simply because the unregulated flow of oil and coal money into our politics keeps anyone from doing anything to fix it.
The same is true with AAU. There’s a need in the youth athletics space and it gets addressed shoddily, just like with everything else in America. I’m not saying the government needs to step in (Though a federal body that licenses and audits coaches could probably do some good), but someone else could, and should, and, honestly, it should probably be the NBA.
The NBA is the only organization in America with the prestige, the cultural capital and the incentive to spearhead a more tightly regulated youth club system that prioritizes the safety and skill development of players. The league could hold standardized clinics to certify coaches, making sure to emphasize safety and discourage the kind of overuse that leads to kids breaking down at sixteen. They could hire auditors to observe coaches in their work environments, and strip certification for any coach who isn’t doing right by their charges. They could even do something about standardizing skill coaching and do a lot of good for kids who can’t afford private shooting coaches. And hey, after they established it, they could promote this new system on their massive media omniplex, so parents everywhere could make sure to only sign their kids up for NBA Approved club squads, or whatever we want to call them.
The NBA has a problem: American players are coming into their league ready to explode. The NBA can manufacture the solution: create a stout regulatory body to supplant AAU and protect youth from the worst impulses of adults who think they’re doing the right thing by getting them to play in heaps of games and never take summers off. So maybe instead of occasionally delivering a SMH about the system to gathered reporters, Adam Silver and the NBA’s myriad owners should do something with the giant pile of money they make every year and go about fixing it.