Freddy, Grant and the price of hype

With Grant Wahl’s “American Prodigy: Freddy Adu” podcast seemingly at an end (who really knows? Every successful pod seems to give birth to multiple “special episodes), we thought it might be timely, perhaps useful, to provide a few reflections on the podcast specifically and Adu’s narrative more generally. Below are reactions to Wahl’s podcast from John Sloop and Jonathan Slape.

Before we hit the talking points, however, we do hope that those who are interested in soccer will give it a listen, talk about it to others. It is not perfect by any means, but it’s a deep dive into a soccer story. And we would love to see plenty more of those. If any sport is rich with narrative, it’s this one.

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1) In the (so far) final episode, Adu notes that one of the things for which he wants to be remembered is that he did, in fact, do what MLS had hired him to do at 14 years old.  That is, regardless of his relative lack of success as an MLS player, he brought attention to the league, and to soccer in general in the United States (notably, among African Americans). Indeed, it’s interesting to reflect on how much impact Adu’s signing had at that level.

I was not a soccer fan and did not know that there was MLS or DC United at the time, but do remember when Freddy Adu signed to the team. More, about five years ago, while at a dinner with friends, I was asked by a person who doesn’t watch soccer at all, “Whatever happened to Freddy Adu?” It’s an odd bit of fame, but it’s clear that he did bring new attention to the game and to the league, perhaps at a large cost to his own career.

2) Adu deserves respect, at least as he presents himself in this narrative. While he is still out there, attempting to give his career one last shot (now at Sweden’s third division team, Ősterlen FF), he does not complain about the journey he has been on nor does he place responsibility on anyone other than himself for his lack of success.

While it would be easy to blame the burdens placed on him at such a young age (can you imagine being named the savior of a sport and league at age 14, then have to attend to all the press that comes along with such a claim?)—and while Wahl points fingers in a lot of directions, including at Adu’s family and “the media” itself, Adu notes his own role in his lack of discipline, his lack of desire to find extra time to train and so forth. Adu is not only charismatic, as Wahl repeatedly wants to point out, but he appears to be very well grounded. 

3) Speaking of responsibility, one of the lessons of this narrative is the simple reminder that prodigies and superstars don’t happen by mistake. When Phil Knight compares the young Adu to Michael Jordan, to Tiger Woods, to Lebron James, etc, it could be that he was making the comparison too early.

That said, we know from multiple stories that guys like those had a dedication and work ethic to practice (at least for awhile) that went far beyond the norm. Former Iowa Hawkeye and Chicago Bulls teammate BJ Armstrong has talked multiple times about just how dedicated Jordan was to improving his game, not to reach the heights someone else set but to simply keep improving. It takes ability to hit the highest levels, but it more importantly takes a hell of a lot of work and dedication, the type of work that Adu was not motivated to do and had little time for, anyway.

4) One of the themes that runs throughout the podcast is how much “the media” itself, or MLS, can be blamed for putting so much hype and so much responsibility on Adu’s shoulders at the age of 14. Who is ready to be the savior of an entire sport at that age.  While Wahl hems and haws about whether or not he is responsible for his role in writing so many articles about Adu in Adu’s first year—and while he does take some of the blame on himself—he ultimately allows Adu to tell Wahl that he is NOT responsible.

On the one hand, we understand and appreciate that the sports press and the league do not have a job to necessarily protect someone from hype (indeed, it may be the very role of the league to push the hype). All the same, we would like to have seen Wahl spend more time talking with others in the press on their role in building up Adu. While Don Garber implies that MLS learned from the experience, and Wahl himself seems a bit reflective, a more thorough going reflection may have been in order from sportswriters in general.

5) One of the useful questions that arises repeatedly on the podcast is, “Just how do we measure success?” Almost universally, people think Adu was a “failure” in the sense of never reaching the lofty goals set for him by others. And, it’s true, he did not. But if we turn the spotlight a little, as Wahl attempts to do, there are a number of ways of thinking about success.

As Adu notes, his mother has never had to work since he signed his first contract with DC United. To Adu, that is a type of success. Adu came from a poor family and altered their lives. That is a form of success. At a very young age, he played competently, albeit not brilliantly, in a league in which the other players were in their early 20s to 30s. That, too, is a level of success. The point is, we too often judge success or failure on metrics that we set; not the ones the player him/herself were working with.

6) On a somewhat parallel track, the podcast is a reminder that professional players at any level are talented, strong players. Too often in fan discourse, you will hear someone say that a player is “garbage” or “awful” simply because they are not the best player on the pitch. It’s a ridiculous standard, and an outrageous claim to make.

While Adu had to put up with claims of this nature, given the way he failed to reach the highest heights, he was always a talented player who belonged on the team. Professional athletes aren’t “garbage,” even when they aren’t superstars.

For the soccer enthusiast and sports fan in general, a series like this is a welcome one. We highly recommend that you give it a listen – available wherever you get your podcasts. It’s a well-told story that resonates beyond the world of sports, and the look into Adu’s struggles and growth is a poignant one. At the very least, listening will hopefully help get a few more of these in production.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The views expressed here are solely the opinions of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Broadway Sports Media.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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