Society: Guilty As Charged

Beyond Jack

We are all guilty.

Guilty of entrancing ourselves with the concept of fame in the world of sports. Guilty of wanting to settle for nothing less than perfection from the world's star-studded athletes. Guilty of putting our youngest and brightest at risk by exposing them to the working world too soon.

The obsessive quest to become the best can be a destructive force--a force which tears apart futures, families and lives. Nowhere is this force more evident than in the seemingly innocent and passive world of professional women's tennis.

Two weeks ago, Mary Pierce raised the victor's trophy in the air at the 1995 Australian Open Championships. For Pierce, the struggles that have led up to that moment of glory can never be erased or forgotten.

Like many professional women athletes, the 20-year old Pierce has lived her life under the reigns of a dominant male advisor--her father--and the stories of his persistent abuse are endless.

After seeing Pierce play many times, there is one less-publicized episode which vividly stands out in my mind. Playing in the Easter Bowl National Championships, in an age division for juniors fourteen years old or younger, Pierce lost a match to a girl one year her senior.

She did not just lose, she got demolished.

And her father would not let her forget it. After approaching and cursing at Mary's scared and teary-eyed opponent, Jim Pierce told the victor that he had $10,000 in his bag and he would gladly give it to her for a rematch. Fearful of his threatening comments, the victor ran off, but not before her mother threw soda on Jim Pierce.

After the defeated parties--father more than daughter--fled the scene, screaming could be heard in the distance.

This scene epitomized the relationship between Pierce and her father. Last year, Jim Pierce was officially banned form Pierce's tournaments, and soon after, Pierce fired him as her tennis mentor.

But, she was unable to fire him as her father.

Whether screaming, causing scenes at tournaments around the globe or having late night practice sessions in the darkness of the night, Pierce's father stunted his daughter's personal development.

The image of her father's brutal outbursts followed her and the rest of her family everywhere. Before making her mark at the top of the women's tennis ranks, Pierce and her family lived out of their car, going from tournament to tournament with one goal in mind--success. If Pierce could succeed in the midst of all of this turmoil, then it would all be worth it.

Now, although Jim Pierce lives without his daughter and her tennis, he has been hired by another young protege.

How could any parent hire a man who has gained worldwide recognition for his unruly and obnoxious behavior? One word answers the question: fame.

The Mary Pierce case highlights the blurred professional and private relationship between a female athlete and her father as the coach.

Before Pierce became a top prospect on the women's tour, she was overshadowed by another remarkably-talented phenom--Jennifer Capriati.

Growing up in south Florida, Capriati's quest began under the tutelage of another well-known tennis father, Jimmy Evert, father of Chris Evert.

From the time that Capriati first stepped into the arena, she was compared with her coach's famous daughter. Even as a young tyke, Capriati sported the same clothing brand and racquet manufacturer as Evert.

Coming onto the professional tennis scene at age 13, hounded by agents, multi-million dollar contracts and the press, Capriati was an accident waiting to happen. Before she turned professional, many people feared that she would burnout at a young age.

But Capriati's young and cheerful demeanor helped silence the critics. A child as buoyant and free-loving as Capriati could never get sick of her favorite pastime.

Or so they thought. When she was arrested on a drug possession charge last year, many people could not understand how this could have happened. After living in the limelight and constantly receiving public appraisal, how could this not have happened?

Virtually form the minute Capriati emerged from her crib, her father thrust the tennis racquet into her hand, ready to take both his daughter and himself step-by-step down the road to fame and fortune. As a famous child, Capriati seemed oblivious to her surroundings. Yet one day, the fun and frolic of fame was likely to transform itself into a deeper commitment to her full-time job.

Employed at age 13 and fully responsible for her family finances, Capriati was just waiting to crack. And she finally did.

Pierce and Capriati are the two most prominent cases of the overbearing tennis father syndrome. But they are far from alone.

Our society constantly preaches the grandness and prestige of fame and fortune. Because of this stigma, those who have exceptional talents instinctively follow a clearly-marked, paved road. But the road is not well-lit.

For women tennis players, the bumps and potholes which occur along the road to stardom often involve male dominance over the athlete.

In the end, Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati may become legends of the game. But the fact of the matter is that from the beginning, these women were not free. They were programmed every step of the way, with their fathers more intent on grabbing fame than they were.

At some point, society must stop this process of abuse. Until this year, the Women's Tennis Association has been lenient about allowing 14 year old girls to turn pro.

After Capriati's downfall, conversations concerning the appropriate age for a young woman to expose herself to the world of professional tennis became commonplace. And although now the age restrictions are becoming more rigid, another prodigy, reminiscent of Capriati, was allowed to play in her first professional tournament this year, upon turning fourteen.

Venus Williams's entrance onto the professional tennis scene was highlighted by the remarkable fact that she had not competed in any junior events before turning professional. Regardless of the recent shock surrounding the Capriati case, Williams, with her father at her side, entered the scene.

Williams, like Capriati, entered with a fresh and bubbling face, bursting with talent and promise. After competing valiantly and winning matches in her debut, Williams assured the press that there was no danger of Capriati Syndrome.

The press, the fans and the world looked on in excitement at the potential rise of this new star. But the future is not in Williams's hands. The cycle is starting all over again.

By putting too much emphasis on success and stardom, we are all guilty.