Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Stopping Offers to Children I & II

The New York Times has belatedly discussed a long time practice in college athletics of offering college athletic scholarships to grade school children. This is not new and has slowly gotten worse as coaches have reluctantly driven offers down to lower ages just to stay in the game of recruiting. Parents desperate for economic certainty, kids, young and excited and awed, and coaches driven by recruiting zero sum games, just make it worse. It's an ugly problem and easy to solve, but the NCAA process stymied by athletic directors fearful of enforcement issues and losing their comparative advantage of attracting young kids have twice in the last ten years stopped the reforms. I am republishing below an analysis that I did four years ago and things have only gotten worse.

As excited college freshman pile onto college campuses to begin team practice this month, it brings to mind one of the more gruesome corruptions of the NCAA process. All these eighteen year old freshman have been aggressively recruited  by college coaches since they were early teens. An epidemic grips college colleges leading to wrong-heaed early scholarship offers to children ages 13-6. Thirteen year olds still in grade school have home visits  Everyone hates it, no one has done anything about it until now. Coaches wrap up recruiting seasons two years prior and are already raiding freshman while keeping watchful eyes on seventh and eight graders.

This is wrong. Everything we know about neurological development tells us that 12-16 year olds are not ready cognitively or emotionally to make life -altering decisions about where they will go to college. Yet the dynamics of modern recruiting push coaches against their better judgment to extend offers to kids earlier and earlier. When one prized recruit gets an offer at age 13, others follow to show the recruit love and avoid disrespecting him or her. Tracking coaches over six years I am amazed at how many of them who were appalled at the idea when it snowballed about seven years ago are now comfortable, resigned, but comfortable with the idea. 

Early decisions make a mockery of any academic pretensions the NCAA has for its student athletes. Informal offers extend to kids before they enter high school!! No one has a clue how they will do academically. Offers to freshman and sophomores with less then fourth semesters of early high school work reflect the same contempt for the academic aspect of student athletes.The whole process is wrong for the kids and makes hypocrites of college athletics, given what college athletes is evolving into that takes works.

From a purely athletic standpoint, early offers are absurd. With very very rare exceptions, student athletes have not reached their full emotional or physical potential as freshmen and sophomores let alone eighth graders. It’s hard to assess work ethic let alone academic commitment or acumen. Intermediaries have more influence at earlier ages. Early decisions generate more mistakes and mismatches that  lead to more transfers later. Alot can happen between 13 and 18. Students grow up. Young athletes burn out; lose motivation or gain it; characters change; injuries occur; puberty intervenes. 

The early decisions create serious inequalities. Unofficial recruiting visits and camp participation drive the whole process. This gives decided advantages to kids whose parents can afford to take them on visits to schools or pay for camps. Significant advantages also accrue to geographically nearby and urban schools since kids and not so well off parents can have easy unofficial visits. The unofficial visit plays into the hands of AAU and club coaches who can conveniently arrange tournaments in geographic areas for prize recruits to make unofficial visits they could not afford. This further increases their role as handlers for high profile athletes.

The whole early recruiting mess is driven by strong forces.  Coaches are obsessed with avoiding competitive disadvantages. Many coaching associations have condemned the practice and urged coaches to stop. But as is often the case, given the competition for athletes and demand to win, if just one coach making a very early offer, this sets off a downward age spiral. No coaching association has successfully stopped this trend with self regulation. The need to avoid losing competitive disadvantage is just too strong.

Parents also have a strong incentive to end uncertainty. The world of club sports has made youth sports an economic investment for parents, and the return is a college scholarship. Parents, guardians and club coaches all collaborate in an economically driven dynamic to start kids earlier, get them exposure and access to college coaches and get scholarships The early offers seal the deal and provide the payoff and certainty for the investment. Many club sports tout themselves to parents as road to a scholarship and tout their own connections to high profile coaches. 

Finally myriad college recruiting services make a living from rating, following and hyping athletes. These services increase parental involvement and knowledge. They generate excitement and energy around athletes and parents, and this can be fun for awhile. The recruiting services, however, turn parents more aggressive in seeking scholarships and manipulating the system. The services make money and visibility. The media feeds on it with their breathless coverage of recruiting hyped press conferences. The average football or basketball recruit now holds their own press conference breathless attended by sycophantic bloggers and recruiting services to announce their commitments.

For the past several years different coaching groups like Lacrosse and Soccer have proposed rigid recruiting calendars for their sports. The NCAA balked at making sport specific legislation and wanted more information, so they died. Additionally everyone claimed that banning early offers was unenforceable and this tended to break any deal proposed. Now things have changed. I will discuss this in the next entry.

The whole early offer dynamic is driven by colleges who press coaches relentllessly to to win now. Colleges seldom give the coaches the four to six years they need to develop a strong culture and pipeline of athletes committed to their system. When teachers like myself bemoan the absurdity of offering college scholarships to 13-15 year old, I have to remember that the Presidents and athletic directors motivate this corruption by their hair triggers on coaches.

No sane coach would make an offer to a fourteen year old. It might make sense in rare cases and in rare sports, more Olympic women's sports where body shape maturity arrives earlier and in a few exceptional basketball cases. But to be honest, many sports coaches have no real ability to predict the development ceiling or work ethic and certainly not academic potential of an 8th. grader or freshman. The dynamic gets the most media coverage in basketball where coaches like Mark Few at Gonzaga or Tim Floyd would make offers to seventh and eight graders. But the real rush occured in sports like women's soccer, gymnastics and volleyball. The problem is not relegated to the high profile sports but permeates all the sports, even teams we do no normally associate with money obsessions. As one coach told me, "I simply can't let her stand out there with an offer from another school without signalling my interest. Otherwise I am out of the running with her parents."

Even football is now being infected. For obvious reasons the coaches wanted to see more age and body development, but now the sport sponsors national eighth and seventh grade tournaments.Seventh and eight grade football players have their own national tournament where offers cascade down on children, granted big bodied children, who have not attended high school so a 13 year old now has a full offer from Hawaii. The apocryphal story of USC's offer to a 13 year old quarterback will become increasing common violating not just an academic pretenstions but any reasonable sport logic. All the coaching associations despite repeated announcments have failed to stop or even slow down the practice. The inimitable Tim Floyd formerUSC paragon of recruiting integrity summed up the logic when he offered a scholarship to a 13 year old to stop Duke and others from getting the young man.

The real solution is blunt, direct and clear. All offers of scholarship aid before the first day of class in second semester of the junior year of high school should be illegal and subject to a major violation—the prospective student athlete would be declared ineligible to attend the violating school. No waivers would be allowed; no appeals allowed. We could add penalties for coaches, but the key is to sever the attendance from the offer. This gets at the issue of parental certainty because they can no longer rely upon the certainty of any unofficial offers. It takes away the publicity and glory from the family and young athlete when all the such offers are illegal and could prevent the athlete from attending the school.
There are two keys. Make the oral offers illegal. Make the penalty loss of the student athlete. The coaches have to see real penalities and the parents have to see real loss of uncertainty to break the chain.

This reduces the coaches’ incentives to make informal offers because they lose the athlete. The media dynamic changes because unofficial offers now become big news as violations, not big news for kids and parents and recruiting services. This approach turns the media into a watchdog rather than parade dog. Since the official ldmedia with rare exceptions will not follow this up, the NCAA and regulators will need to rely upon the blog reporters who spend immense time watching other schools for violations and tracking high profile recruits as part of their niche.

Coaches will immediately say, well, coach X will cheat anyway and just say "well, if you keep you keep your grades up, I will offer you a scholarship in two years." It of course violates the whole spirit of the law and what coaches believe they should not be doing. But I can live with this conditional. First, it no longer gives the parents or the athlete the level of certainty; second, the conditional offer is not a guarantee and makes the athlete sill open to recruiting from other coaches; third, it reminds the student athlete that they have to go to school, attend class and get good grades in core classes or no offer can occur. More than a few coaches will invent sophistical ways around, but the offer will not longer have the full guarantee and will cut the umbilical chord of certainty for parents or the sense of obligation from the athlete.

Coaches should have a strong incentive to self-police and report on early violations; unfortunately the coaching fraternities have incredibly strong rules against informing on each othe. The culture against snitching that their own teams accept, pervades the coaching fraternities. No one wants to be known as a snitcher and to some extent it gives them mutual dirt on each other. It's odd given how many good coaches get hurt by the coaches who violate the rules. In some of the fraternities the coaches will go after those they don't like, but most will keep silent when they learn of the illegal offers. They might make a personal call to the offending coaches, but coaches like Caliperi and his ilk are immune to peer pressure. It's a big mistake modelling for their own players how to cover up cheating on the team. I think some of this is career protection, people are afraid of not getting hired if they get the reputation, but it brings down the entire profession.

Ironically the recruiting services will be big winners because the recruiting uncertainty will linger, and they can invent new categories to try and figure out what a student athlete is thinking. It would take aggressive and high profile NCAA pursuit to create those examples. The informal blog sphere will follow these with microscopes and the most information about violations would come from the informal medi, not the mainline media.

Thankfully the NCAA Recruiting and Athletics Personnel Issues Cabinet has courageously come out with very similar proposals. The committee had to fend off immense opposition. The constant refrain was it is impossible to monitor. The Cabinet correctly concluded that early offers mock the academic mission of college athletes and with pesistence and courage made the proposal. It will face a lot of opposition especially as coaches who hate doing it but are now accustomed to it claim it will hurt them and be unenforceable. The coaches present a classic case on getting accustomed to what you know is morally wrong.

The rule is simple, clear and enforceable. The new approach will not be pleasant. Initially it will create a climate of recrimination and coaches watching coaches like hawks, but they already do. The rule takes away the incentives of parents and media to go for early offers. Above all it respects the academic and personal development of the student athlete.

This clear and obvious idea was defeated when the athletic directors goaded by coaches decided that the idea was "unenforceable." The process eroded support at the conference level and then guaranteed defeat at the top level. So the mockery of academics continues despite the ethical unease of coaches who feel as if they must do this to even "stay in the game." Until the athletic directors are willing to risk doing the right thing and let self-enforcement take its natural course, this insane and unethical practice will continue.

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