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Be Their Guest

December 29, 2009

Investigation into U. of Tennessee's football recruiting practices raises questions about the continued presence of "hostesses" -- female students responsible for entertaining recruits -- on some campuses.

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A string of scandals involving alcohol, sex and male high school sports stars -- and the National Collegiate Athletic Association's adoption of new rules in 2004 -- seemed to put a stop to college teams’ decades-old practice of organizing groups of female students whose goal was to charm prospects into choosing their university.was one of the rules changes that these groups couldn't be just women? You sort of imply but don't state that in story -- can you add (need not be here, and may be better below) -sj

But, as the NCAA investigates the recruiting practices of the University of Tennessee’s football team, it has become clear that colleges and universities are still to some degree sanctioning the use of pretty young women, often called “hostesses,” to attract top players. Under the 2004 rules, only current athletes or students who lead tours for all prospective students are allowed to interact with recruits.

In September, two Tennessee hostesses drove 180 miles to South Carolina to cheer for two recruits from the sidelines of a high school football game, holding a sign printed with girly letters reading “Miller & Willis have our hearts…” and illustrated with a heart. One of those women had an online photo album -- made private since news reports of the NCAA probe appeared -- titled “i recruit champions...you can thank me later.” Message boards and blogs are filled with allegations that some hostesses have done more than just flirt to convince recruits to commit.

Though some of these women may never do more with a recruit than hand him a ticket or check his name off a list, some observers see even those actions, done with a flirtatious smile and in a skimpy outfit, as unethical and degrading to women, even if they don't violate NCAA rules. Reactions suggest that many people unfamiliar with collegiate athletic recruiting -- especially outside the South, where the use of hostesses is more common -- had no idea that such activities still went on, sponsored in some way by universities.

During the round of scandals that led to the adoption of new NCAA rules, said Christine Grant, former director of women’s athletics at the University of Iowa, “people were just appalled that athletics were using women and women’s sexuality to attract male athletes.” That kind of outrage has been present, but not widespread, this time around.

George Vecsey, a sports columnist for The New York Times, wondered, “how far is too far?” A blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked readers, “would you let your daughter be a ‘recruiting hostess’?” Countless others have expressed disgust at what Grant called a “demeaning, devaluing” practice.

Even if a reader wouldn’t want to see his daughter become a hostess, he might not mind being seduced by one. “You don’t want to go to a college where they ain’t pretty,” one player recruited by Tennessee told the Times.

Many straight men might agree, though not all. The father of another Tennessee recruit, told the Times he asked a hostess to stop brushing her breasts against him and his son and generally witnessed high school recruits in awe of the university’s hostesses. “My observation is that this is a very organized operation. These girls have obviously been groomed. There’s a lot of eye contact and touching.”

“They don’t choose young women who -- I hate to use this term -- aren’t attractive,” Earl Smith, a professor of sociology at Wake Forest University, who interviewed student athletes about recruiting tactics for his book, Race, Sport & the American Dream. “There’s sex, or at least the appearance of sex.”

Recruits at various institutions, Smith said, “have told me they go out to dinner, these ladies accompany them to dinner and then they hook up.”

Skirting the Rules

The Tennessee hostesses whose activities are now under investigation weren’t part of a group that purported to be trying to seduce high school boys. Though it was called the Vol Hostesses until 2004, it is now the Orange Pride. Its mission is described on its Web site as promoting the university and “its strong academic programs, its rich traditions, and its winning athletic programs -- to campus visitors and potential student athletes.”

Orange Pride is one of three student groups supported by the university’s admissions office. (The other two groups are general campus tour guides and minority student recruiters.) Membership is coed, though a photo on the group’s website shows 55 members, seven of whom are male. A page in Tennessee’s 2009 yearbook lists 65 members, all but five of whom are female.

Across the country, the hostess groups that existed until half a decade ago have been replaced by predominantly female -- but still coed -- groups that are supported by admissions offices rather than athletics departments and often do more than give tours to top football and basketball recruits. It's common to find a few men in these groups, but the focus is on recruiting male athletes, not female athletes, National Merit Scholars or talented tuba players.

Instances where “a university selects a small group for their good looks and the possible sexual favors” are “absolutely taboo,” Grant said. But, she added, “it doesn’t matter what kind of legislation you pass, people will find a way around it.”

Though Tennessee’s coach, Lane Kiffin, said he was not aware of the hostesses’ trip to South Carolina or other alleged violations of recruiting rules, Wake Forest’s Smith is incredulous. “Everyone knows this goes on. Kiffin claims this had nothing to do with him, and maybe directly it didn’t, but he knew this was happening.”

Because “every last piece of it is about the money and getting your top recruits to keep the money flowing,” athletics departments are willing to take risks in their recruiting practices, Smith said. “The money is deep and they know the NCAA doesn’t have enough personnel to follow all these stories.”

A Hostess by Any Name

Not every story at every institution is quite as egregious as the Tennessee hostesses’ trip to South Carolina.

At Texas A&M University, membership in the Aggie Hostesses is open to male students, but neither the name nor the fact that the group is all-female makes it particularly appealing to male applicants. Lindsey Bounds, a 2008 graduate of Texas A&M who is the group’s head coordinator, said “men can try out” for the group, but none have, and she has heard no criticism of its gender breakdown. “I don’t feel like anyone really notices it’s an all-female group.”

When choosing new members, “we look for girls who want to be active in ... a student organization,” Bounds said. “We look for girls with really great personalities, who are excited to get out there and say great things about Texas A&M.”

The group’s members, she added, rarely interact with recruits. “The main thing we really do is get the word out around campus, distribute a big football poster we made, help out with office hours, administrative duties.” On game days, the hostesses “help check in recruits” but don’t spend much time with them. “We definitely do not support anything inappropriate. Our girls are extremely classy and we would never put them in a situation that would be inappropriate.”

But even if a hostess has no intention of behaving improperly with a recruit, she may feel the need to do something to entice a recruit to choose her team and institution, said Bryan E. Denham, a professor of sports communication at Clemson University. “What if you're the young woman serving as a hostess? Will she feel pressured to show the recruit a good time, as it were, rather than risk being an outcast in the athletic department -- the cause of a prized recruit choosing another school? That is where issues of power and pressure come in.”

On game days, Wake Forest’s Smith said, “you see all these young men wearing their high school jacket or a shirt identifying where they’re from – you know they’re in high school -- and then they’re surrounded by these young women.”

There may not be any sexual contact, but there may be the sense of possibility, should a recruit choose that institution. “Just by seeing these beautiful girls when they visit a campus, recruits might get the sense that my chances of hooking up with one of these young ladies is likely,” he said. “There’s a definite intent to help these young men make up their mind which school they’re going to.”

Until a few years ago, an all-female group called the Gator Guides (and previously called the GatorGetters) was responsible for hosting the University of Florida’s football recruits. It was a group that, as one fan magazine put it, existed for “the sole purpose of escorting, and many believe, entertaining high school football prospects whose rising testosterone levels generated, more often than not, unrealistic visions of sexual grandeur that might be realized during a weekend campus visit.”

The group that exists today is coed and exists to do more than just entertain recruits.

The University of Florida Cicerones, said Anthony Fowler, a senior who is the group’s president, are “the official student ambassadors to the university, the student face for any visitor to campus.” The 150-member organization – about a third of whom are male -- leads campus tours for prospective students, staffs on-campus events for alumni and, he said, “hosts football recruits coming for their unofficial or official [visits] and at each of our home games.”

When recruits visit Gainesville for a home football game, the Cicerones check them in, feed them lunch and take them to the field to watch the team’s pregame warm-ups, Fowler said. Members of the group – sometimes as many as 20 – join the recruits and their families on bleachers behind the south end zone to watch the game and “to promote student life, to talk about what it’s like to live on campus, to talk about what the classes are like” with the players and their parents.

Recruits “all ask about” partying, Fowler said, “but since the Cicerones are a registered student organization we encourage our members to always do the correct thing and only talk more generally about having fun as a student at UF.” He conceded, though, that some group members may give a more detailed rundown of campus life than others. “It honestly depends on who a prospective athlete might be talking to, getting that student’s take on student life or nightlife.”

But, “especially being the group that followed [the Gator Guides and Gator Getters],” he said, “we’re very careful to make sure we represent the university correctly and abide by NCAA rules.”

 

 

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