A heartening reverse trend has been spotted, albeit a solitary one: A young professional female tennis player wants to turn amateur and go to college.
Maggie Cole of Santa Cruz recently won an NCAA appeal to restore her college eligibility after a bleak 18 months on the pro tour. Cole turned pro three years ago at 14, reportedly at her father's urging. In her 16-tournament career, she earned $550.
After quitting the tour, Cole enrolled in high school and was reinstated by both the U.S. Tennis Assn. and the California Interscholastic Federation.
Then she decided to go to college but quickly ran up against the NCAA. Last year, San Diego State, one of the schools she was considering, filed a request to restore Cole's eligibility. It was denied.
But on Sept. 29, the NCAA's eligibility committee overturned the earlier decision and granted Cole limited eligibility. She will be allowed to receive a scholarship as a freshman, but Cole won't be permitted to compete in matches. All restrictions will be dropped after her freshman year.
"We think it's terrific for Maggie," said Peter Mattera, women's tennis coach at San Diego State.
Cole, however, has not said where she intends to enroll.
Mattera has an obvious interest in arguing that developing players are better off honing their skills in college, but even if they do turn pro, he believes 14 is too soon.
"It's just too early," he said. "I don't think they're fully formed as people. I don't know why they would put themselves in the pressure situations that are there on the pro tour.
"Division I college tennis offers a high level of competition. It allows you to juggle academics, tennis and a social life, which is important: You have to learn how to interact socially with your peers, in life and on the tour."
Ernie Griffin, San Diego State's NCAA faculty representative, prepared the request for Cole's reinstatement. He said the initial rebuff was no surprise because, according to the NCAA's definition of professionalism, Cole had clearly lost her amateur status.
"I think the (NCAA) staff did exactly what it should have done," Griffin said. "They are not the ones to set a precedent. But the eligibility committee can set a precedent, and it did. In this case . . . I'm quite sure it was because of the age that the individual turned pro.
"We argued that an individual of that age--given the intellectual ability--can't be expected to know exactly what is happening. To hold them responsible for those decisions seems a little harsh."
So Cole gets a second chance to reclaim her youth and live it in a more normal fashion. Her choice to attend college is one indication that she is, now, making responsible decisions for herself.
Cole's is the cautionary tale that, taking recent events as an indicator, few seem to be heeding. Martina Hingis made her professional debut at 14 in Zurich this month and--symbolically framing October as kiddies' month on the WTA calendar--14-year-old Venus Williams has announced that she will turn pro at a WTA Tour event in Oakland on Oct. 31.
Williams, a tennis prodigy who grew up in Compton but now lives in Florida, reportedly made the decision to become a professional against the wishes of her parents. And for Halloween, Williams is going to dress up as an adult.
Mary Pierce, who turned pro at 14 and now says she wishes she had stayed in school, acknowledged that there is a difference between being able to play an adult game and successfully living in an adult world.
"It's one thing to be able to play professional matches, but it's another thing to be a professional player," she said.
Have any of these tennis parents noticed that Jennifer Capriati--for whom the WTA rewrote its rules to allow a 14-year-old in its midst--has yet to return to the tour after her drug bust and time in rehab? Shouldn't her experience be the best teacher?
As yet unexplained in the Williams saga is how a child, barely a teen-ager, overrules her parents on such a decision. How does it happen that a ninth-grader announces she's quitting school and embarking on a career and her parents' reaction is to shrug and say, "Gosh, the little dickens just really, really loves to play. Can't keep her off the court. It would break her heart if we didn't let her play professionally."
But isn't that what parents do every day, make difficult decisions that they believe are in the best long-term interests of their children, never mind the child's crying and tantrums? This rationale would empty the nation's classrooms and fill its streets, parks and video parlors with children who really, really want to play.
This is not to say that it's not possible for teen-agers to absolutely know their life's passion at an early age. A child lucky enough to know her mind and fortunate enough to have the skills should be encouraged. But, as long as she is a child, the passion should be nurtured, not exploited. Elementary schools place gifted children in special programs, not in Fortune 500 companies.
Williams' talents have certainly not gone unnoticed. She hasn't competed in a tournament in three years, but International Management Group, which owns the Oakland event, promptly granted her a wild-card entry into the main draw. In addition to IMG, the tournament will be thick with tennis agents and potential sponsors, all drooling over Williams.
What are the limitations on having a 14-year-old as a product spokesgirl? Acne cream? Bicycles? Orthodontics?
The best evidence of Williams' immaturity is found in a statement she made to Robin Finn of the New York Times. In explaining her ability to make the decision, Williams said: "I think I'm more mature than a 14-year-old. . . . It's almost like I'm 16."
Sixteen? Oh, all right then. By all means.