Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Mad Logic of Early College Athletic Commitments

The University of Washington got a commitment to play football this summer from a fourteen year old quarterback. The school had actually offered the scholarship to the fourteen year old, and the child and his parents accepted. This once would have raised eyebrows, now it has become the norm. This new normal in college athletic recruiting is wrong in so many ways but will continue because it is driven by a crazy but real logic.

It all begins with the  professionalization of kids sports in the United States. The professionalizing of 10 year olds and their sports is driven both by parents and the cycle of AAU and club teams. Early recruiting of college athletes also drives the process. Two years ago the basketball coach of USC (now departed) offered a scholarship to a fourteen year old. Everyone gasped, now it is becoming a norm across all sports to make offers to kids who have not even gotten their first year of high school grades. This whole approach mocks of the ideal of a college "student" athlete scholarship. In the world of AAU sneaker-assisted basketball, it is not unusual for a 15 year old to have over 100 scholarship offers.

The drive to early scholarship offers is not healthy or even reasonable. Coaches don't like it. Let me repeat, Coaches do not like it, but they have embraced it with gusto. The reason being that if they don't act fast, someone else will swoop in. This is one of those economic market situations where everyone is bidding to the lowest common denominator. Most college coaches, right now, are not comfortable unless they have already locked up most of the class of 2014--that means most offers have gone out to sophomores and freshmen!

Coaches make these offers to  "kids" of 14 and 15. The coaches have no real clear view of the young person's character, body shape and emotional and physical development. Let's not forget that you are offering scholarships to student athletes. No one has any idea what kind of a student a fourteen year old will be in high school let alone college. While coaches have a pretty good fix on the body shape of 15/16 year old young women, many scholarships are now going out before the young women hit puberty and risk huge body and emotional changes that will impact the young players. .

For a long time football resisted many of the early offer trends because football depends so much upon getting a clear fix upon the bone/body structure of the players. Boys  generally developed much later and coaches held off. No longer the case. Football has succumbed to the rush of early offers and now 14 year old quarterbacks like here at UW and others get offers from major colleges.

One of the main drivers for early offers besides the dynamic among coaches, is the desire of parents for certainty. Most parents see sports as an investment. Parents and sometimes guardians have invested thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of time and energy into supporting the athletic development of their children. For many parents, especially from working class and low social economic status homes, athletics represents the way out for their children. In some homes, the investment hinge upon a dream of their children become professionals and that jackpot will benefit the entire family.

Parents want certainty and return on their investments. The earlier the offers, the less uncertainty. So for the calculations of parents wanting a return on investment and reduced uncertainty, early offers are a godsend. Unlike their kids, parents will let coaches know of offers and play off offers from one coach to another. They are just acting like good parents trying to get the best deal for their kids but also trying to get the best return upon 10 years of investment in time and treasure for their children.

Coaches' associations have tried to develop guidelines urging coaches to not bring students in for visits early or not offer scholarships until late junior year. Self regulation always fails. It only takes one coach to make one offer and the whole system collapses because that coach now has a competitive advantage over coaches who are waiting for the proper developmental or times to make offers. So coaches compete to the bottom offering scholarships earlier and earlier. They don't like it, but do it. If they don't someone else will.

When a prominent coach lionizes a young man and offers him a scholarship at the age of 14, it is hard to respect the 14 year old's decision. The kid is 13! How many of us want to hang our futures on decisions we make when we are 14? The parents may be involved and even stage managing the offers, but this is not about a reasonable decision by kid or coach. No one should have to commit their lives at age 14 and be held to it.
These offers are always "informal" and usually made at sports camps which are exempt from many NCAA rules about no contact with recruitable student athletes. Students are not even allowed to make official visits to colleges until they become rising seniors in  of high school. Yet by now most coaches have already sown up their class of 2013 and are working on 2014 and 15 classes. Very very few student athletes actually make decisions based upon official visits. In college recruiting coaches are not allowed personal contact with student athletes until those official visits. But there are exceptions, whole universes of exceptions.

Most recruits meet coaches at summer camps. The camps are critical for coaches to augment salaries especially for their assistant coaches, raise money and to get to see and connect with student athletes. The contacts made at camps, often when kids are barely in their teens, are critical to coaches and kids. Both see the camps as mini-tryouts.

In addition, many students take unofficial visits. These are often self-financed visits where a student athlete and parents or guardians visit a campus, meet with coaches and players long before their senior year. Students can watch practices meet with advisors and do anything that could be done on an official visit.

Many kids can't afford to take these unofficial visits, so the whole unofficial visit world has a class bias to it. It also generates a geographic bias since kids can visit schools that are relatively close. Students get around these limits with the help of club teams. If a club team just happens to play a game or tournament in the vicinity of a university, the student can visit the campus compliments of the club travel. Besides schools save money by not having official visits. Many schools regard the official visits as a waste of time and money since almost all the recruiting is finished by the time "official" visits even begin.

In addition, coaches fly all over the country to watch AAU, club and high school teams at tournaments. The coaches strut and vie with each other to be seen. Coaches have to do it because all the other coaches are. They have to prove to the student they are recruiting that they care enough to be there. They also have to babysit students who have committed but may be still tempted by other coaches.

So the press to earlier and earlier scholarship offers simply blasts air into the furnace of unregulated pre-college sports and clubs. No one has figured out how to end the cycle.

The whole early recruiting game is now big news. Scouting services, especially in the revenue sports of basketball and football, assiduously track who is commited to whom. Rabid fans follow specialized sites to see who is getting the biggest name recruits. Media shows up for athletes to announce decisions, even though coaches cannot publically comment upon their recruits. So the media and private camps and tournaments and scouting services as well as AAU and club teams now have vested economic interests in keeping the recruiting process lively and full time.

Nothing is stopping the mess from getting worse. The drive to make offers of scholarships to younger and younger students continues even though coaches, faculty and administrators recognize it makes no sense. Only some sort of national NCAA legislation will get at the problem. Self regulation by groups or coaches simply does not work.

The NCAA has twice in the last five years rejected the proposals for their Academic and Recruiting cabinets for rein this in or outlaw all informal offers until junior years. Coaches want it, but the fear of enforcement problems, grossly over blown, and the interests of the top teams in keeping their monopoly grip on the best kids, leads to its defeat. So one more gross distortion and corruption of the ideal of the student athlete occurs. We offer scholarships to kids who have not yet attended a high school class. When faced with that hypocrisy, the entire NCAA membership votes to continue the practice.

I don't know the solution, but the excuse that it can't be enforced is no longer good enough to permit these practices to continue.

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