- Tim Keown, Senior writer, ESPN.com
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Robert Nkemdiche is a star. Even if you haven't heard of him, you will. It's true that he just recently completed his junior year in high school, but that doesn't matter anymore. Age is a state of mind, right? Nkemdiche may have no idea how to clean up after himself or use a washing machine, and I can all but guarantee you he follows the car in front of him way too closely, but the kid has power. Control. Juice.
Nkemdiche is widely hailed as the No. 1 high school football player in the class of 2013, a big (6-foot-5, 265-pound) defensive end from Grayson High in Loganville, Ga., seen as one of those rare athletes coaches believe can change a program and save jobs. He also created quite a stir last week when he suggested his tentative commitment to Clemson could be solidified -- locked down, throw away the key -- if Dabo Swinney and the Tigers offered one of his high school buddies, Ryan Carter, a scholarship to join him and two other high school teammates.
When news of Nkemdiche's suggestion -- billed as a "demand" or "threat" -- was made public, he became the latest athlete to usher in the Age of Armageddon. You would have thought the kid wanted Charles Manson to play tailback. He immediately became one of those people who become Symbols of Something Bigger. The knee-jerk reaction was igniting involuntary spasms all over the country. Who does this kid think he is? What is he thinking? What will we tell the children?
The athlete isn't supposed to dictate terms. He's supposed to nod like a grateful young man and thank ol' Coach Swinney for the opportunity. The system depends on subservience from the athlete in order to maximize profits for the institution. And by golly, this form of systemic inequality was around long before Robert Nkemdiche, and it'll be around long after he's gone. Could you imagine what Bear Bryant would have said if Ken Stabler had held out for his high school tight end?
Here's how it works: It's OK for a high school or AAU basketball coach to parley his proximity to a big-time recruit into an assistant's job at a school like Memphis or Kansas. It's OK for Gus Malzahn to be hired as offensive coordinator at Arkansas in order to make it easier for the Hogs to recruit Mitch Mustain. It's a hierarchy, get it? An old boys' club. But Nkemdiche, by expressing his desire for Clemson to include one of his buddies -- a legitimate Division I prospect -- in its 2013 recruiting class, is committing a high crime against all that is sacred in the compartmentalized world of college football. Got it? Good.
Except for one thing: The world is changing. Nkemdiche, who quickly clarified his statements to emphasize it was far more of a wish than a demand, is simply using the power vested in him as one of the most sought-after young athletes in the country. You can't create a system that exalts the athlete at an ever younger age and then clutch the rosary beads when the athlete in question decides to see how elastic your exaltation really is.
Because this is what happens when high school all-star games get national television coverage and high school recruiting websites become a significant industry. This is what happens when big-time high school football goes from a quirky regional anomaly -- Friday night lights -- to a staple of local and national cable telecasts. This is what happens when the college decisions of 18-year-olds become televised sideshows with kids sitting in front of baseball caps like street-corner three-card monte scammers.
This isn't meant to blame the media, because if nobody watched or cared, the whole concept would dry up and blow away like tractor pulls and Australian Rules Football. After all, more than anything, we aim to please.
But don't be surprised when the byproduct of the system, ultimately, is a savvy kid like Nkemdiche, who sees the world laid out before him and asks the musical question, "What's in it for me?" He knows the power of stardom. He understands, at some basic level, the power of leverage. He knows he's one of 10 or 12 high school football players his age who can push far enough to find the pushback.
Do you blame him? If you divorce yourself from the schoolyard fantasy of the purity of amateur athletes, what do you find? The rest of us go through life dreaming of the day when that kind of leverage comes our way, when we can command our own destiny and shape the world in our own image. So why is it any surprise that a kid like Nkemdiche, no doubt influenced by a generation of professional athletes using their power to dictate terms and craft rosters, decides to use his?
As proof of his power, look at the backlash this idle bit of talk by a 17-year-old received by the scolds in the venerable sporting press. (Google "Robert Nkemdiche hostage" to conduct your own experiment.) If you're the 17-year-old in question, or a 16-year-old the world is just beginning to admire, take note: There's a lot of power out there. Be careful how you use it, but by all means see how far it stretches. You might not get your way, but understand this: Things might never be better.
You can't create a system that exalts the athlete at an ever younger age and then clutch the rosary beads when the athlete in question decides to see how elastic your exaltation really is.