Top Jocks: How Young Is Too Young To Go Pro Athlete?

Get Talking

Ask students: Is there a sport that you are really good at? Do you dream of being a professional athlete? Would you give up college to play your sport professionally? What might some of the advantages and disadvantages be of becoming a pro athlete in your teenage years?

Notes Behind the News

Each professional sports league has its own age requirements; there is no national standard.

* The minimum age requirement for the National Basketball Association is 18.

* The National Soccer League has no minimum age requirement.

* The Ladies Professional Golf Association has an age requirement of 18 to play on tour, but players 15 and older can request exemptions from the rule.

* The National Football League has the oldest age requirement in pro sports; players must be three years out of high school before playing football professionally. This rule is currently being challenged in court.

* Major League Baseball requires that a player be 16 years old and that his class has graduated from high school.

* The Women’s Tennis Association age requirement is 14.

* The Professional Golfers’ Association requires players to be 18.


Doing More

Ask students to pretend that they are professional athletes in the sport of their choice. They have been offered $1 million to endorse a new sneaker deodorant spray. They have found the spray doesn’t work very well. Ask them to write a short essay on whether or not they would take money for endorsing a product they don’t believe in. How would their choice make them feel?

Michelle Wie, Freddy Adu, and LeBron James have something in common–and it’s not just their amazing athletic skills. They all became professional athletes when they were teens. Wie began her professional golf career at 15, and Adu became the youngest professional soccer player ever at 14. LeBron James, 18, signed a contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers right out of high school, earning more than $100 million in endorsements.

Going pro is a dream come true for some kids, who travel the world playing their favorite sports and often sign lucrative endorsement deals. But some parents and coaches are worried about the adult-sized pressure on pro kids. Others cite physical and mental burnout as issues for young athletes.

Just Don’t Do It

Critics of pro teens say kids aren’t ready for the adult world of professional sports. “Some younger players have tremendous talent, but being pro isn’t just about skill level,” Gil Pagovich, a sports agent, told MSNBC. Pro sports athletes have to deal with intense mental and physical pressure.

“They may be experts inside the ropes, but they’re still 15, 16 emotionally and socially,” says Maureen Weiss, a professor of sports psychology at the University of Virginia.


When kids make it to the big leagues, they are more likely than adults to burn out. Critics point to women’s tennis to make their point. Jennifer Capriati famously became the youngest Grand Slam semifinalist ever at age 14 and won a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics at 16. From 2010 to 2015, however, she dropped out of tennis, some say from burnout.

Others criticize the adults who push teen athletes to go pro instead of pursuing education, leaving them with little else if their sports careers don’t pan out. “I’m … concerned with the guys who were expected to deliver and wound up with mediocre careers,” Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, told MSNBC.

Games Are for Kids

Supporters, however, say that young pro athletes are great role models, inspiring other kids to play sports instead of watching TV Teen participation in golf has grown since Tiger Woods won the U.S. Amateur championship at 18.

Advocates for young athletes say there are ways to avoid the pressures of going pro. Increased knowledge about how to train young bodies means fewer injuries, they say. “There’s more research on prepubescent strength training, and we’re finding … less risk of injury and better performance,” Katherin Coltrin, a trainer, told MSNBC.

Age shouldn’t determine whether someone plays professionally, says 17-year-old golf pro Morgan Pressel. “If somebody is ready to compete, there should be no problem with [the person’s age],” she told MSNBC. “It shouldn’t be an issue.”

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