Football academies are one of the most important structural institutions in football – but it’s no secret that like so many other aspects of the sport, their once-pure intent of developing young players to be their very best self on the path to first team football has been squeezed and twisted by the elite game’s obsession with dominance and greed.
Since the explosion of transfer fees and the realisation that any young player with a hint of potential has serious market value, the sport’s biggest teams have been in an arms race to fill their academy systems with enough players to fill five teams, not just one.
But the cold reality is that not everyone can become a professional player. On average, less than 3% of players in elite academies ever play a single minute in the Premier League, meaning 97% of prospects – equating to hundreds every year – are cut loose from the system and told to find another club, or find something else to do.
Players know their odds of making it as a top flight player are slim, but that only increases their desire to dedicate extraordinary amounts of time and effort to be their very best self. Research from the University of Stirling shows this single-mindedness leads many young players to only identify with themselves as an athlete, and they face severe mental health challenges adjusting to a new reality when dropping out of the game.
The ‘All or Nothing’ approach to academy development in football is a major problem and for the good of the game, alternative approaches need to be considered – no matter where they come from.
Enter Kanye West and his newly created Donda Academy, helping to develop some of the brightest high school basketball players in the United States.
Founded in October 2021 – but with its story being told for the first time via SLAM Magazine earlier this week – the Donda Academy is an educational institute founded by Ye in tribute to his late mother, “preparing students to become the next generation of leaders, thinkers and innovators.”
As part of the school’s mission, Ye has also founded the ‘Donda Doves’, recruiting 11 of the most talented high school players in the country to join an all-new programme that meets the cultural, social and educational needs of young athletes.
While the links between sport and learning in the United States are established – with a college education being a necessary stepping stone on the route to NBA or NFL – Donda Academy promises to go even deeper on developing individuals, with a smaller pool of players to manage and maximise rather than the hundreds at any one time.
And while Kanye’s position as a figurehead has the potential to attract criticism and unwelcome attention – we’d be the first to admit he’s not always covered himself in glory over recent years – his undeniable position as a cultural thought leader has benefits for young athletes, too.
While perks of balling out in Balenciaga uniforms and personal mentorship from Ye himself are some of the headline benefits of being a Donda Dove, it’s the school’s holistic approach that will be most significant. It’s said that Kanye views sport as an extension of art and culture, and is therefore attempting to create an academic environment that gives its young people the opportunity to learn about the creative and commercial side of sport. This is a smart move because the new generation of athletes have ambitions way beyond the field of play – and we’ve already seen this in football.
From Marcus Rashford’s campaigning to Hector Bellerin’s fashion exploits, it’s an undeniable fact that future-facing ballers want to use their platforms as a springboard for social and cultural projects. With so much of the industry stuck in a “footballers should stick to football” state of mind, this is a prime example of where academies right now aren’t doing enough to meet the 360-degree emotional needs of their young people.
Leaning into a more diverse educational programme within existing academies would not only help players maximise their influence once they’ve made it big – but it might just provide young ballers with an off-pitch career too, should their playing journey end sooner than anticipated.
This week, we saw the PFA announce the launch of a new Business School for pro players transitioning into retirement. This is long overdue and anything that helps players find belonging after their playing career is a positive step, but it should be something football is considering for academy players as well.
Football academies should embrace the opportunity to create multidimensional young people fit to take on the world in any and every industry – but as of yet, they’ve not been able to do it.
In the UK and throughout Europe, perhaps it will take someone from the world of culture with a fresh perspective to create an academy environment that’s more reflective of the culturally-fluid industry that football is becoming.
Imagine a world where Dave’s ‘Santan Academy’ lets kids kick ball in the morning, and create music in the afternoon – or where Clint’s ‘RTW FC’ drops a masterclass on the pitch by day, and a clinic in product and marketing by night.
As fanciful an idea as it might seem, cultural leaders like Dave and Clint possess the right amount vision and disruption with their work to break new ground. They influence and inspire communities in equal measure, and are undisputed kings of the two cultural worlds most closely related to football right now in music and style.
Of course, it’s no single individual’s responsibility to save the academy system, but football clubs should actively be looking at what Ye is doing with Donda and asking themselves how they can take influence from contemporary culture.
There are plenty of people who say English football could learn a lot from the US. The development of its young people could be a good place to start.