Stop Scholarship Offers to Young Athletes (Part 2)

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The whole early offer dynamic is driven by colleges who press coaches relentlessly 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 occurred 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 signaling 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 pretensions but any reasonable sport logic. All the coaching associations despite repeated announcements have failed to stop or even slow down the practice. The inimitable Tim Floyd former USC 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 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 penalties 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 media 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 modeling 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 media, 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 persistence 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.