Stranger Things: The Disappearance of America's Greatest Athletes

Writer K.L. Reeves says the age of mass incarceration is rotting our sports leagues and making America 'a wasteland of talent.'

Gronk

There is a magnificent sports park that stretches for miles and miles. It's a magical kind of playground that contains a great many football fields, basketball courts and baseball diamonds. All the grounds are well kept, the equipment is new and fresh, and coaches are plentiful.

Playing on this land of jubilance and freedom are thousands of little boys who are almost predestined to be world class, professional athletes. These are American boys from different circumstances who share the common bond of sport, genetic predisposition, and the intense drive to be the best.

It is too early for specialization, so each boy finds pleasure playing every sport. Yet, watching the games, when you look closely you can see a certain fire in the eye and flash of skill in the sport that is truly for them, the field of play where crowds will cheer the loudest for them one day.

But there's none of that now, no scores kept in record books or averages or contracts or endorsements or bets placed. It is a pure, happy place where the boys learn the value of discipline, hard work, and camaraderie, where, daily, they experience the endorphin-filled rush of athletic competition, the joy of play and movement.

Time passes and the boys go on this way, returning to the fields each year as more realized versions of their future athletic selves. But when they reach the age of twelve-something, strange things begin to happen.

Out of the thousands of boys, a number of them begin to disappear. It happens one by one, this disappearing act, until a full third of the boys are missing.

Though less populated, the fields are still there, and once the initial shock of their missing comrades wears off, the remaining boys continue to get better on them. However, the vanished ones are now caught in an invisible and coldly efficient system. They are close, right here with us, yet trapped behind walls we don't see.

All the boys come from the same circumstance. They are poor. They are poor boys with great potential, trapped indefinitely in another dimension.

***

Bryce Harper

The fields of future stardom may be fantasy, but the rest of this scenario is very real.

By most accounts, the big three sports leagues appear healthy and vibrant. The NBA just signed new TV deals that enriched the entire league, and the NFL dominates television on all of its scheduled days. Major League Baseball has bright young stars like Bryce Harper and a pack of players for the Cubs who may finally break the World Series drought. All good stuff.

Peel the layers back, however, and you find that all three leagues have lost their potency. Why? Because America has become a wasteland for talent.

Year after year, beginning in the early 1980's, an incredible number of special homegrown athletes are discarded. Quietly, a feeder system has emerged that harvests talent as good or better than any other that we have in this country. That organization, the other dimension, is the American prison system.

In the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, Will Byers, the poorest boy in a group of four friends, gets snatched by a monster and dragged into another dimension. That monster, and the men's 4x100 team being blown out by Jamaica (again) while simultaneously being disgraced by Japan and—as if that weren't enough—ultimately disqualified, help me to frame this cloaked sports crisis. This is what has been happening. Will Byers (spoiler alert) eventually gets rescued, but this doesn't happen in real life. Instead, thousands of poor kids get snatched by a monster and pushed through a pipeline that eventually leads to prison. And that's where they stay. In and out, stuck in the system and effectively institutionalized, their great potential unrealized.

As it is with shifting global climates, the change isn't noticeable in the strongest places right away. You have to look at the most vulnerable regions. Track & Field has become one of these vulnerable region in American sports. It's among the most sensitive to a decline in talent.

Running is the most approachable and natural sport, an athletic move we were all born to do. It is one of the easiest ways a poor kid can move out of poverty and into prominence. For years, particularly on the Olympics' bright stage, that is exactly what happened. Look at the unbreakable Louis Zamperini and the incomparable Jesse Owens, mates at the famous 1936 Berlin Olympics and both products of very humble beginnings.

The list goes on and on. So did our winning in the Olympics, particularly in the sprints. From 1920 to 2000, the U.S. 4x100 team failed to win gold only three times—1960 in Rome, 1988 in Seoul, and 1996 here at home. That's 80 years and 18 Olympics. Throughout the 20th century, America was known for its power and speed. This applied to our military, our swiftness to innovate and our athletes. So it was no surprise that we dominated the premier sprint relay for all those years.

The surprise comes when we don't win. And for the past four straight Olympics, we have not. In fact, we only medaled once in those four Games.

Have we gotten weaker as nation? No. Are we still known for power and speed? Yes. So what's happening then with the men's sprint relays?

 

***

LeBron James

The better question is what's happening to all of our major sports. Men's sprints are just the canary in the coal mine, a sign that the monster of mass incarceration is biting painful chunks out our men's athletic pool. It's just now starting to show.

For most of the 20th century, the U.S. prison population was consistent, hovering around or below 200,000 people. But in 1980, with new mandatory minimum sentencing laws and new distorted financial incentives for drug law enforcement, that number started to rise rapidly. By 1982 it had doubled. From there it skyrocketed: 600,000 in 1990, 800,000 by 1994, 1 million in 1998 up to its peak of nearly 1.6 million in 2010. Add another 700,000 people being held in jails and yet to be sentenced, and you have more than two million people incarcerated. That's the highest incarceration rate in the world—higher than Russia, higher than North Korea, higher than Cuba.

More than 90 percent of those incarcerated in prison or jail are men. Out of the roughly 2 million men incarcerated, how many of them hold the genes and drive to be great athletes?  I'll leave the statistical analysis to the guys at FiveThirtyEight. I'll also leave the debates as to why the prison population exploded to others. I will say this though; from my research, the correlation between a rise in crime and the meteoric rise in incarceration is weak.

But enough with the numbers. Can you imagine the NBA without LeBron James? No historic comeback, no iconic block, no 6 straight NBA Finals appearances? While it's hard to imagine now, young LeBron was a prime candidate for the pipeline, given the circumstances of his childhood. If it weren't for a series of moves, and the embrace of his hometown of Akron, Ohio, it's very possible that none of us would have been able to witness his greatness.

Thousands of children with great potential who live in big cities and small towns aren't so lucky. There are swept away as young people before the world even has a chance to identify their talent. For every boy who makes it out of impoverished circumstances, how many more do not?

There have always been great athletes who slipped through the cracks, but the loss has never been so devastatingly high as it's been since 1980 through today. Right under our noses, we've experienced a historic disappearance. And it's visible in our sports leagues.

Major League Baseball is a prime example. In 1980, there were 17 African American All-Stars in the league. In 2016 there were three. Some might argue that this is due to the rise of players from Latin countries and elsewhere, but Latin players had been a part of baseball for many years. Why did the MLB intensify its search for these players? Latin players did not oust African American players. A void was there, so they filled it.

Of course, there are other factors involved, but much of the breakdown and many of the pathologies point back to mass incarceration. Baseball is nothing if not a father-and-son sport. So what happens when you take the men in the communities away? The boys are in and out of juvenile facilities on their way to prison, where the men are already. How many Kirby Pucketts or Rickey Hendersons have been lost because of this pattern? How much more vibrant and healthy would our three major sports leagues be if the historic institution of mass incarceration didn't happen?

Like anyone who watched them dismantle our sprinters in Rio, I am in awe of the tiny island of Jamaica. How a nation of 2.7 million people came to so thoroughly dominate the world, I don't know. But it isn't just about Usain Bolt. Whatever they are doing, it is an incredibly effective and efficient way of preserving and promoting talent.

They're certainly not locking up their people at the rate that we do. It would devastate their athletic programs. With a population of 318 million people, America can hide it. But if you look closely, it's starting to show.

K.L Reeves is an accomplished author of several books, including Slugg: A Boy's Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: LEBRON JAMES | BASEBALL | OLYMPICS | TRACK & FIELD | NBA | SPRINTER | MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL | MLB | BRYCE HARPER