Ethical College Admissions: How Athletic Recruiting Helps Some and Hurts Others

Jim Jump writes about how coaches can abandon students, forcing them to scramble at the last minute.

September 11, 2017
College baseball championship series

Back in August I met with one of my students, who is a Division I swimming prospect. Sept. 1 is the date that college swimming coaches are allowed to contact prospective recruits who are high school juniors by mail, email or text, and both the student and his mom were anxious about what the day might bring.

In sports like swimming and track, you can determine quickly where a student fits athletically based on event times, and I was confident that my swimmer would draw Division I interest. Indeed he did -- since Sept. 1 he has been contacted by 30-some coaches and gotten phone calls with some appealing options. His challenges will be narrowing down the list and maintaining sanity. I have known students who committed to a college simply to end the volume of recruiting contacts they were receiving on a weekly or even daily basis.

What my swimmer is currently experiencing is the best of the athletic recruiting process. I have known other athletes who sat by the phone for calls that never came while teammates and competitors they thought were not as good received more and better recruiting interest. It can be humbling to discover that you may not be as talented as you think, but that’s also an excellent introduction to adulthood.

Of course, coaches can be wrong. Several years ago the quarterback at our rival school was told by the football coaches at the flagship state university that he wasn’t good enough to play for them. He went to another university and proved them wrong. That quarterback, Russell Wilson, is now a National Football League starter who has won a Super Bowl.

Coaches can also change their minds. At the same time my swimmer was experiencing the best of athletic recruiting, I was working with a senior who was living the sordid side of college sports.

He is a baseball player who had his moment in the sun during the fall of his freshman year. He was recruited by two big-time programs. He was the first freshman I have worked with to receive a verbal offer, including a 60 percent scholarship (significant for a baseball player), and he committed. Three years later, at the same moment when my swimmer was waiting for his first coach contact, the head baseball coach called my student to inform him that the admissions office didn’t think the college would be able to admit him.

That didn’t smell right. Like many athletes, my student is far more passionate about his sport than he is about his schoolwork, and while the university would be a reach if he were applying straight up, my sense was that he was admissible if the coach wanted him. I suspected that it might be the coach who was having second thoughts, thinking he’d like to use the scholarship dollars for other recruits.

It just so happens that I have two friends in the university’s admissions office, both experienced pros I trusted to give me the straight scoop. One of them turned out to be the liaison to the baseball program. I found out that while my student was on the bubble academically based on the recruiting guidelines given to the coach, no one in the admissions office had vetted my student’s transcript prior to the coach’s call. My friend told me after talking to the coach that the door wasn’t necessarily closed to my student, but advised him to reopen his recruiting process.

That’s easier said than done, because after thinking he was set for the past three years, he was back on the market when most good Division I baseball programs have filled their recruiting classes. My student was fortunate to have the opportunity to go to a weekend camp at another school over Labor Day weekend, and he has a place to play, although no scholarship dollars for at least a year.

So what are the larger issues here? There are at least three trends that impacted my baseball player, one baseball-centric and other two impacting athletic recruiting regardless of sport.

The issue in baseball is overrecruiting at many top-notch programs, bringing in too many recruits. In defense of college baseball coaches, every spring they lose some of their top prospects to the major league draft, so recruiting more players than needed is a form of insurance, but there are college baseball programs notorious for offering spots on the team with the intention of washing a number of recruits out of the program once they arrive on campus.

One of the broader issues is semantic. I have long contended that the phrase “verbal offer” has a different meaning in an athletic recruiting context than in ordinary English usage. It is an offer subject to change at the whim of the person making it. Similarly, the term “commitment” in athletic recruiting carries much less weight than what most of us think of as commitment. That complicates the job of those of trying to teach our students that their word should mean something and that they should take commitments seriously.

The biggest issue is the acceleration of the recruiting process, which leads both students and college coaches to make decisions before they are ready. It has proliferated in a number of sports, and coaches in sports like lacrosse recognize that it is insane, but worry about competitive disadvantage if they don’t get in on recruiting early. I told my baseball player that he is both the beneficiary and victim of early recruiting.

So is David Sills. Sills is a West Virginia University wide receiver who was recently profiled in Sports Illustrated. When he was 13, he was anointed the next great quarterback and offered a scholarship to the University of Southern California. Sills is a poster child for many of the things that are wrong in youth sports, as he went to a high school created by his father where every student just happened to be a member of the football team.

By the time Sills finished high school, he had decommitted from USC after the coach who recruited him, Lane Kiffin, was fired, and went to West Virginia, where he ended up fourth on the quarterback depth chart. After a year in junior college, he returned to WVU as a wide receiver when there was no recruiting interest in him as a quarterback, and he’s a good college player but not the once-in-a-lifetime star he was anticipated to become. He’s no Russell Wilson.

How many bad decisions, both academic and athletic, get made due to the pressures to recruit and commit early in high school? Kids aren’t ready intellectually, physically or emotionally to make decisions about their futures before the junior year in high school, and for most of my students that’s still early. Can we outlaw recruiting “offers” and “commitments” before then? Can we at least have an adult conversation about the dangers?


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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