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-headed early scholarship offers to children ages 13-66. Thirteen year olds still in grade school have home visits.
Everyone hates it, yet 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 13-16 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 than 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 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. A lot 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.