Baby Gronk, internet stardom and the Sports Dad nightmare writ large

If early retirement is the ultimate flex in the age of late capitalism, then Baby Gronk had us all beat. The American football phenom, who has been lighting up more than a corner of the internet with his made-to-meme skills and antics, announced last week that he was hanging up his helmet at the age of 10. Baby Gronk shared that he would be focusing not on grade school or a paper route but … his love for video games. To be fair, the purported “rizz king” of the pre-pubescent sports world is probably not the one who actually said any of the above.

Baby Gronk, an unarguably skilled athlete, whose real name is Madden San Miguel and who lives in the Dallas area, is the son of Jake San Miguel, a digital marketer who makes no secret of his thirst for internet fame. A modern-day Mama Rose of the football field, San Miguel Sr – who manages his son’s social media accounts, schedule and persona – has exhibited no qualms inserting himself into the Baby Gronk narrative. A recent post on his son’s Instagram account opened with a video of the diamond-necklace sporting, preternaturally large boy staring down the camera, superimposed with “BABY GRONK’S DAD TO BLAME.” San Miguel Sr shared, in the next post on Baby Gronk’s Instagram account, that his son was coming out of retirement. “NO LESS THAN 150,000.” (Whether he meant additional followers or dollars was unspecified.)

Only two years ago, Baby Gronk, nicknamed for former NFL star Rob Gronkowski, was a shockingly large third grader and the subject of a human interest story in Sports Illustrated, headlined: “Meet ‘Baby Gronk’: The 8-Year-Old Football Celebrity and Cowboys Friend.” The piece called the then-4ft 9in, 88lbs aspiring NFL player’s shtick “wildly entertaining,” and touched on his daily oatmeal intake, belief that girls have cooties, and impressive self-confidence (college football coach Ed Orgeron apparently told Baby Gronk “he was the best football player he’s ever seen”).

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The kid who appeared in the accompanying video was more stiff and laconic than one might expect of what the article insisted was a “social media sensation,” but charisma and celebrity don’t always march in lockstep. Over the next two years, Baby Gronk went on to amass another half million social media followers. He became a hashtag and something of a Zelig figure in the world of sports, rubbing elbows with everyone from Shaquille O’Neal and Mark Wahlberg to LSU gymnast Livvy Dunne, whose signature “beachnastics” videos and dream-girl looks have earned her a supersonic following on TikTok.

It was the last of these collaborations that stirred up the ire of the commentators. Wearing a crop top, Dunne pulled the young athlete in for a hug. Baby Gronk looked awkward, if not downright uncomfortable (cooties!). Some said enough was enough, and it was time to stop pretending that a kid who wasn’t even in his teens was guaranteed to develop into a titan of the NFL. Most of the resistance, though, was to Baby Gronk’s dad. It was one thing to drive across the country and trot the kid out to college coaches. Pushing him into the embrace of a sex symbol such as Dunne, per the critics, was downright irresponsible.

Even if it weren’t for the “Baby” at the front of his name, the boy would not come across as a day older than he is. Athletic skills aside, he is not especially precocious, nor even conversational. His signature expression of befuddlement underscores his youth. The photograph of him in a mouthguard accompanying a recent story in The Athletic calls to mind a kid sucking a pacifier.

During a recent father-son appearance on the podcast Bring the Juice, the star guest appeared stiff, twisting his fingers and casting his gaze downwards while his father did most of the talking. “If you can’t live with pressure then you ain’t gonna have a high ceiling,” San Miguel Sr said, doing little to disabuse his critics of the idea that he is robbing his son of a childhood. “Like I’m gonna put the pressure on you I’m gonna put the weight on you, if you can’t come out of the water then you really ain’t gonna be nobody.”

Former NFL player Chris Long was one of many to express disgust. “I have no problem with profiting off the internet, this is what we’re all doing,” he said on his podcast Green Light. “But the difference is we’re not using a 10-year-old kid to do it. You gotta be concerned about the toll this is gonna take on Baby Gronk when he’s older.” (Long is worth listening to on this subject. He is no stranger to childhood pressure himself: he grew up the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long.)

In addition to egregious stage parenting and internet exploitation, Papa Gronk is guilty of another crime: being a Sports Dad as bad as they come. His orchestration of the Baby-Boom is as sad as his online critics suggest, but it also highlights the worst aspect of children’s sports, one that is only tangentially related to children. San Miguel Sr is the viral, outsize iteration of the parent on the sideline who screams at his kid, his kid’s teammate, the kid on the other team, or even a fellow parent. He can’t let his kid figure his own life out for himself.

If you happen to have attended a youth game of late, or picnic-ed in a grassy spot in the park near a softball game, you’ve seen him: the dad who is grasping for (somebody else’s) greatness, uninhibited to the point of unhinged. Maybe you’ve witnessed the father who brawls with a 13-year-old umpire. Or the sideline guy who inspired this ref to come nose to nose with the parents in the stands and issue a firm but gentle warning.

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The high stakes are not helping matters. According to the Aspen Project’s 2022 report on youth sports, the average family spent $883 annually on each of their children’s primary sport. That is close to $1,000 per child – not for one child’s full scope of athletic activities, mind you, but a single pursuit. The pressure to squeeze success out of kids is greater than ever. Elite US colleges, the likes of which often look kindly on applicants’ athletic achievements, have been trumpeting their record low acceptance rates. Greatness on the field – regardless of the player’s actual appetite, or interest – is increasingly presenting itself as one of the only answers in the US to establishing one’s post-high school success in the game of life. The scarcity mentality embedded in an increasingly competitive college admissions process can go hand in hand with delusion, desperation and exploitation, so often exacerbated and engineered by a monomaniacal dad. Tiger Woods had one. So did the Williams sisters, and Andre Agassi. Sometimes such high pressure domestic arrangements result in the cultivation of superstars. Sometimes though – or even simultaneously – they end in tragedy.

Whether Baby Gronk stays in the picture and goes on to pursue the college sports career he supposedly wants is beside the point. He isn’t the one whose retirement everyone’s rooting for.

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