The Rigors of Recruiting
By BJ Bennett
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As college football recruiting grows and expands, we must make sure our outlook does as well.
While college football has undergone great structural change over the past few decades, no aspect of the nation's most popular amateur sport has experienced a more dramatic alteration than recruiting. The catalyst for consistent success on the field, the first Wednesday in February is now more discussed than the final Saturday in November.
With college coaches needing to sign the best high school talent to keep their jobs, the recruiting game has always been a wild one. From Herschel Walker to Heath Shuler to Tim Tebow to Robert Nkemdeche, the biggest names in college football have long flocked to small towns in hope of persuading boys not yet old enough to vote or play the lottery that their university is their best bet. Fundamentally, roles are reversed. Young men who have spent their days having decisions made for them are given the keys to the rest of their lives. Each visit to a school, each meeting with a coach, is a critical test drive. Parents, while obviously influential, most often leave the final say to the prospect. Local figures, family friends and high school teachers may get caught up in the hype. Peers, seeing someone their age on magazine covers or on television, sometimes transition from friend to fan.
Such reactions are not inherently wrong or negative. The idea of coaching celebrities wooing a top player, and their support structure turning into their personal posse is, in most instances, a fine reward for years of hard work on the football field, in the classroom and in the community. Coverage of this transition is well-deserved and chronicles the ebb and flow of the process while showcasing the future to fans of the present. Many top high school stars go on to college where they further themselves academically, culturally and socially and become outstanding representatives of their home towns. Lessons learned playing college football easily translate into various areas of adult life.
The most insidious aspect of recruiting, though, is one that isn't even intended. It's a mere byproduct of the athletic fashion show that recruiting has become. One unique angle of American culture is that few things nullify age or maturity like sports. Whereas society expects many life mistakes from your average young man, that same group of people looks for perfection out of their favorite athletes. Behind the facemask, underneath the shoulderpads, uncertainty remains out of the spotlight.
An undertaking that's stressful for a high school senior, may be overwhelming to a junior or junior-to-be.
"When you are a blue-chip recruit, you got coaches texting you and pulling at you and even in a sense trying to sweet talk you," explained former Florida All-American tight end Ben Troupe. "You feel like a beautiful woman in a room filled with men, or better yet a pureblood surrounded by blood sucking vampires. Even though you consider yourself a good player and want to go to college and continue your athletic career, you find yourself questioning your decision because football is what you love. You didn't sign up for all of the attention or the tug of war. In all seriousness, it's just a game. What starts out as a great feeling becomes something you are truly mum to because as much as the process is a blessing and you are truly thankful, you will be truly glad when it is over."
Once a prospect is identified as elite and separated and celebrated as such, the only numbers most care about are their forty-yard dash time and height and weight totals. With the ability to throw, catch or run the football comes a different set of parameters. Many of those, for high school students, are simply unfair. Place a 17-year old in a law firm and you'd be lucky if he could work the phones. Put that same kid on the football field and he better know all of the dynamics that come with it.
One of the more potentially-concerning developments in recent years has been the expansion of recruiting and recruiting subsidiaries into the 8th, 9th and 10th grade ranks. With the competitiveness that the process promotes, many schools have used early evaluations as a way to establish initial relationships and edge out their rivals in the pursuit of top talent. It's not uncommon now for schools to have upwards of 15 verbal commitments before the junior academic year for that class has even been completed. That's no indictment of any particular university, it's a reflection of how far the process has come. Programs must stay out in front or run the risk of falling behind.
On the field, this presents multiple challenges. With athletic grades being solidified before a player has his senior season, perception may inhibit opportunities for late-bloomers. With standards already being set, prospects may find themselves in a situation where their fate is sealed before they ever really emerge as a prominent player on their own high school teams. Coaching and talent development then becomes neutralized in favor of early-established physical measurables. A hypothetical trickle-down effect could result in more results-driven middle school and recreational leagues.
The most staggering effect, though, comes away from the field. While a lot of players grow between the shoulders from 16 to 17, a more profound progression occurs between the ears. With more exposure for prospects who are 14, 15 and 16 years old comes the possibility for more problems. Athletes that young are more often than not simply not ready for the meat-grinder that is college football recruiting and the attention, distractions and drama that is always included. Overexposure, especially at too young of an age, has the very real potential to derail the natural progression of these young athletes in more ways than just athletically.
A lot has been made regarding college football's presence in the police-blotter in recent years. This off-season alone has seen Arkansas State's Michael Dyer, Florida State's Greg Reid, Georgia's Isaiah Crowell and LSU's Tyrann Mathieu completed dismissed from their teams. It seems like more players are finding themselves in trouble with the law, making poor choices. In some instances, it even seems like these players have a certain entitlement expectation. While personal responsibility does and always will come into play, is it fair to expect a boy to act like a man at 16 but then not allow a man to act like a boy at 22?
It seems like at least the serious discussion of recruiting reform needs to be had. Anything from at what age recruiting contact can be made, to when even hypothetical scholarships can be offered, to how much indirect communication can be sustained. We may be reaching a point where more stringent rules are needed. The process of oversigning, which has become a hot topic, is another issue that needs cleaned up. Talk of an early signing period alleviating some of the stresses that come with the stretch run of the recruiting process also has merit.
College football is a huge business, a national moneymaker and a proverbial minor league system for the National Football League. For the vast majority of those involved, however, it's a glorified transition into adulthood. As the NFL has made efforts to properly educate and prepare their newcomers for the next level, college football, and those involved, need to continue to do the same.
As recruiting grows and expands, we must make sure our outlook does as well. Otherwise the further the envelope gets pushed, the less surprised we should be once it's opened.