Track and field's version of the prep-to-pro generation is here. Much like the wave of stars--Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James--who reshaped professional basketball in the late 1990s and early 2000s by leaping directly from high school to the NBA, the future of our sport is being rewritten by an unprecedented group of talented athletes turning professional without competing collegiately first.
The most recent high school track stars to turn pro include high jumper Vashti Cunningham and sprinter Khalifa St. Fort, who both shed amateurism this month. Those two followed in the now well-worn path laid out by sprinter Candace Hill and middle-distance runners Ajee Wilson, Mary Cain, and Alexa Efraimson. Wilson signed with Adidas in January 2013 after graduating from high school in 2012. Cain and Efraimson each signed with Nike after their junior high school seasons in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Hill signed with Asics after breaking the national high school record in the 100m as a sophomore.
Allyson Felix turned pro after graduating high school in 2003, but she was a serious outlier at the time.
It's unclear exactly how the pioneers of the prep-to-pro generation will perform as professionals. Efraimson (1500m), Hill (100m), and Cunningham (high jump) all hold American junior records in their respective events, but only Efraimson set her record while she was getting paid to do so. Cain's greatest successes came before she turned professional, and Hill, St. Fort, and Cunningham are embarking on their first outdoor seasons as professionals in 2016. Just like the NBA's prep-to-pro generation had its busts--think Kwame Brown or Eddy Curry--surely track and field's will, too. Not every star high schooler who signs a lucrative endorsement contract will become an Olympian, or even a U.S. champion.
But every single one of them deserves her money.
If any one of these athletes never touches her age-18 PR or seriously contends for an international team, listen for the people who say they should have gone through the NCAA system. And then laugh.
Anyone who claims that an athlete would be better off competing collegiately than professionally is essentially telling a talented person that they should work for free. Aside from being wrong by at least one objective measure--no matter how well Wilson, Cain, Efraimson, Hill, Cunningham, and St. Fort perform this summer, they've already deposited their paychecks--this stance is indefensible. Imagine telling anyone else, in any other field, that they could receive a healthy salary for their work, but they should instead work for the pleasure of free classes, textbooks, and meals on a college campus.
An increasingly large number of talented teenage girls who compete in track and field in the United States have looked at the collegiate system and thought, like every other working person ever, that they would like to be compensated for their work if possible. For this, they were willing to sacrifice their eligibility to compete with a school's name on their shirt. Good for them. It seems clear that more smart teenagers will be doing the same.