Commentary

Geno Smith's generation

Updated: May 9, 2013, 4:50 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

I wouldn't blame Geno Smith for thinking life as a professional football player is overrated.

Even by the standards of today's vicious media landscape, the assassination of Smith's character is shockingly swift.

When he starred at West Virginia, Smith was characterized as humble, studious, courteous and bright.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergRoger Goodell greeted Geno Smith after he was drafted by the Jets.

Now he's perceived as entitled, whiny and lazy.

No one knows for sure how much of what's being said about Smith, who was drafted by the New York Jets in the second round, is true. Some have suggested race is the reason Smith has been criticized so harshly. Or it could be that Smith is just collateral damage in the Jets' awkward handling of their quarterback situation.

But I have an alternate theory, which not only applies to Smith, but seemingly a lot of young athletes from this generation.

Smith is a millennial, the generation of people born in the 1980s or '90s who irritate their elders with their empowered attitude and inability to develop thick skin.

The millennials are easy targets in society overall, but especially in sports. There is no question that professional athletes in major sports today have it better than any generation in sports history. There is more money, freedom and technology available than anyone could have possibly imagined. Athletes are more media- and marketing-savvy than ever before, have more methods to express themselves without the help of traditional media avenues, and seemingly are better prepared to assume and flourish in major roles at earlier stages in their careers.

Rookie quarterbacks in the past rarely put up staggering numbers, and the expectation was even the best college players would take a couple of seasons to learn a pro system. But after the immediate success of Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and others, the expectation now is that top college quarterbacks are ready for an NFL playbook and that Smith will deliver similar results if given the ball.

These early off-field struggles that Smith has shown in adjusting to professional life have some wondering whether Smith is suited to be a franchise quarterback, but according to behavioral experts, this rocky transition isn't all that uncommon.

After Smith fell out of the first round, ESPN's Suzy Kolber reported that he said he wasn't going to return to Radio City for the second round. He reconsidered. Later, Smith denied he ever told ESPN he wouldn't return, but the damage already had been done because it's been perceived as a sign to a lot of people that he lacked mental toughness.

Smith also fired his agents after the draft. Then there were reports that when Smith met with an NFL team before the draft, he spent much of the time texting and tweeting.

Smith said he didn't fire his agents because he was upset about where he was drafted. He denied that he was texting and tweeting rather than interacting with a team he could potentially play for.

"I got strong remarks from all the teams I visited with," Smith told USA Today. "… I couldn't care less what's coming out in the media, because I know what's true."

In 2008, author Ron Alsop wrote the book "The Trophy Kids Grow Up," which is a detailed look at why young people in the work force, while extremely talented, seemingly struggle with the demands of professional life.  Alsop wrote: "If there is one overriding perception of the millennial generation, it's that these young people have great -- and sometimes outlandish -- expectations. Employers realize the millennials are their future work force, but they are concerned about this generation's desire to shape their jobs to fit their lives rather than adapt their lives to the workplace."

The millennial work force totals 92 million, and according to Alsop, more than 85 percent of those with hiring power feel that millennials have a strong sense of entitlement. They also complained that millennials expect higher pay, and a promotion within a year.

Those attitudes certainly bleed into sports -- and it's not necessarily a bad thing. I don't buy that Smith never told Kolber he wasn't returning to Radio City for the second day of the NFL draft. But if you're Geno Smith, who was pegged as a top-5 pick before the draft, having your misery play out on national television probably wasn't appealing.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
AP Photo/Eric GayGeno Smith completed 71 percent of his passes and threw 42 touchdown passes as a senior.

It's debatable whether Smith should have been mature enough to regain his composure. But Smith is from a generation that, as Alsop wrote, "was treated so delicately that many schoolteachers stopped grading papers and tests in harsh-looking red ink." That doesn't make Smith's generation better or worse, but just a product of what's increasingly being considered the norm.

The past two springs I've been an instructor at the University of Central Florida, and I can personally attest that much of what Alsop wrote about this generation is true. This semester, I had one student who seemed close to a panic attack because she received an unflattering grade on a paper. In my class, students aren't allowed to use computers or text. And if their cellphones ring while in class, points are deducted from their final grade. I was shocked to learn from my students that the rules for my class are an anomaly. In most of their other classes, many of my students pass the time on social media or by texting.

Every generation is accused of being spoiled. And I'm the last one who can criticize them because if I were in their position, I might be doing the same thing.

In any era, quarterbacks always have been more self-centered. It's the product of playing a position considered to be the most important on the field. In the 1984 NFL draft, John Elway forced a trade and ended up with the Broncos because he didn't want to play for the Baltimore Colts. Twenty years later, Eli Manning did the same thing, forcing his way to the New York Giants because he didn't want to play for the Chargers.

So even if half of what is being said about Smith is true, he certainly never executed a power play that was in the same realm as Manning's or Elway's.

While I'm not blaming anyone else for the issues Smith appears to be having as he transitions to the NFL -- some of which seem to be blown out of proportion -- perhaps the reason Smith doesn't seem to be exhibiting the leadership that people think he should have is because this is a playbook Smith hasn't fully learned yet.

The leap into real adulthood wasn't that easy for most of us. And for a variety of reasons, it's even more difficult for this generation.

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine

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