Rationalize Sports Recruiting

College sports recruiting is a circus that favors the interests of sports over academics and of colleges over athletes. Gerald Gurney and Jerome Weber propose some reforms to restore the balance.

March 22, 2012

On the first Wednesday of February, big time college football coaches in America sign the latest batch of phenoms to restock the shelves and renew their fans’ dreams of future championships.  The sporting public is fascinated by this annual ritual of unofficial verbal commitments, recommitments, de-commitments and signings of the National Letter of Intent by 17-year-old late adolescents who represent new hope for college teams. 

Recruiting sites rank the potential harvest of each university and the recruiting acumen of each head coach. Special television shows are created for the speculation of who is going where. All of this hoopla and speculation often occur before any serious considerations are made regarding the players’ academic preparation and institutional fit on campus and in the classroom.  It has become common for high school juniors to verbally commit to coaches before they ever step foot on campuses.

Inside football offices, recruiting coordinators and coaches gather to conceive ever-more-elaborate enticements to impress and convince prize recruits that their athletic programs’ value their talents more than the school down the road. The futures of head coaches ride on the talents of the athletes. This year’s prize for successful antics goes to Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel, who arrived at the high school of the nation’s top recruit, Dorial Green-Beckham, in a helicopter.  One wonders which school Green-Beckham would have chosen if Coach Pinkel had arrived in his car. 

Making Peace With the NCAA
A longtime critic of the association
praises the recent decision
to let big-time sports programs
offer multi-year scholarships.

College programs, with the support of their athletic departments and administrations, will cast aside propriety and logic to woo high school stars with perceived talent.  With the help of boosters, coaches too often resort to unethical behavior to persuade athletes to sign National Letters of Intent (NLI). The recruiting frenzy infects boosters who are intent on helping head coaches bag their game. 

The most recent allegations from a former University of Miami booster and convicted felon Nevin Shapiro may implicate as many as 114 players for illegal inducements and extra benefits including parties for players, bounties for injuring opponents, and arranging prostitutes for recruits and abortions for the girlfriends of players. One of Shapiro’s alleged targets in 2004 was Willie Williams, a talented linebacker with a history of legal problems. After considerable angst, University of Miami President Donna Shalala permitted Willie Williams to enroll at Miami in spite of 11 juvenile arrests. The competition to sign the most athletically talented athletes is so fierce and intense that the criminal history of the players seems to be of little consequence to many college coaches and their administrations.  Under pressure from celebrity coaches and major donors, directors of admissions and college presidents often capitulate. 

Another recent example of the zeal for athletic talent is the case of Chris Collins; a talented high school linebacker who was arrested for aggravated sexual assault of a 12-year-old after his high school prom. After the withdrawal of a scholarship offer from the University of Texas at Austin, Mr. Collins simply committed his talents to Oklahoma State University, where he played for the Cowboys for two years until he pleaded guilty to the charges and was convicted as a sex offender. Coaches use the rationale that athletes can be rehabilitated and deserve a second chance.  While it is doubtful that second chances would be afforded to non-scholarship players, it makes one wonder what sort of crime a talented recruit would need to commit to become disqualified  for a second chance.  The need to win football games trumps criminal history and reason.

In 2009, at the request of the University of Tennessee football offices, two football hostesses traveled to the high school games of recruits to entice them to join the volunteers. In 2004, the University of Colorado attempted to lure recruits to campus through well-coordinated parties involving call girls and allegations of rape, launching several ineffectual changes in NCAA recruiting practices and legislation.

As unscrupulous as these recruitment activities may be in college football, it is sadly well-documented that the identification of prospects in men’s basketball starts earlier and that prospects are more likely to be represented by handlers who restrict access to their players to the highest bidders.

Recruiting has become high-pressure coercion of young adults by celebrity coaches. We offer some suggestions to ensure academic primacy and fairness in the recruiting process.

Ban verbal commitments until the prospective athlete has been deemed admissible to the four-year institution. When a coach offers a recruit a scholarship, he acts as an agent for the university. A celebrity coach's offer of a scholarship to a recruit is a powerful implied offer of both admissions and financial aid. It places enormous pressure on the director of admissions and the president of the university to admit the committed recruit irrespective of his academic qualification or institutional fit. To deny admission would certainly create media headlines and angry fans and donors.

Instead, require the institutions’ examination of academic records and a tentative approval of admissions before offers of athletic-related aid are extended to recruits. Scholarships should not be offered unless there is some assurance that the recruit will be admitted to the college of his choice and that he has a reasonable chance of graduating. Without a serious review of the recruit’s academic qualifications, his verbal commitment will often rule out the recruit’s options to attend other colleges. 

With the NCAA’s passage of the ability for institutions to offer multiyear financial aid grants, athletes will once again be afforded a measure of security to pursue a meaningful education without fear of losing their scholarships.  As such, it will become crucial for coaches and institutional admissions officers to make accurate decisions about the long-term academic and athletic viability of recruits. Poor assessments will result in costly and expensive mistakes to sport teams.

Abandon the National Letter of Intent and Releases for Transferring.  The NLI document clearly disadvantages the athlete. By signing the contract, the recruit ends the formal recruiting process. The document presumes that the student-athlete has committed to the institution, and it attaches eligibility penalties for attending a different school or transferring prior to the completion of an academic year.  Should the coach who recruited him leave for a more lucrative job such as Greg Schiano’s departure from Rutgers for the NFL, the student remains bound to the institution under penalty of loss of athletic eligibility. In spite of signing long-term contracts, coaches often abandon their obligations to take offers of million-dollar raises at other institutions. Universities do not penalize their National Merit Scholars for transferring or changing their minds about enrolling, nor should they penalize their athletes. Signing a financial aid agreement is adequate protection for the student to receive a scholarship, while offering him the freedom to transfer without a penalty of loss of eligibility. While the National Letter of Intent may be good for photo opportunities, the current contract unfairly favors the interests of the coach and university.

Maryland coach Randy Edsall refused to release three players to schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and non-conference schools that Maryland was scheduled to play in the upcoming two seasons. Coach Edsall felt free to leave Connecticut to accept the job at Maryland without any restriction whatever. Athletes should be afforded the same freedom to transfer to explore other schools and programs as their coaches and the student body.

Redesign official visits to follow those offered to the general student body. Abandon the orchestrated entertainment offered by hosts and volunteer recruiters. Official visits for prospective athletes should be designed to be learning opportunities about the institution and the athletic program rather than the circus and party atmosphere they have become. Recruits should stay in campus residential facilities rather than five-star hotel suites. Their visits should be the same process offered to  prospective students by the campus and simulate common campus life. 

Limit official visits to three institutions. Prospective athletes may take as many as five official visits paid by the institutions. Today, official visits often are formalities for verbally committed prospects to be entertained at the cost of the institutions. By the official visit season of the athlete’s senior year, most have visited campus on unofficial visits, attended the coach’s athletic camps, attended multiple games, and narrowed down their choices. We believe that de-emphasizing and reducing the number of official campus visits would represent a cost savings to institutions and possibly reduce the party atmosphere.

Require police background checks of recruits and all athletic personnel.  Information which could legally be gathered on the past criminal activities of recruits should be sought and reported to the president of the university before offers of admissions or financial aid are executed.  Police background checks should periodically be conducted for coaching staffs and all full-time athletic staff. The instant celebrity attached to big time college sport coaches and athletes may influence inappropriate off-the-field behavior that endangers the reputation and integrity of the university. Athletic programs that have been embarrassed by recruits and athletic staff are slowly adopting this practice, but we recommend that it become established national policy.

We should expect athletic staff to represent our universities to recruits with accurate depictions of campus and athletic life without taking advantage of youth who are too often from disadvantaged backgrounds.  For when the press conferences and celebrations fade, star recruits encounter the stark regimen of athletic program routine and are often disillusioned by the unfulfilled promises of their coaches. 

The reality does not mirror the hype they heard from their coaches. When recruiting has ended, athletic programs will often attempt to reduce the expectations of highly recruited athletes, but the athletes are often left feeling betrayed. Campus, classes and sport do not quite measure up with what was described. The academic major they had hoped to pursue interferes with athletic commitments and academic majors are changed to accommodate athletics. Their hopes of playing time often do not materialize immediately as they were told, and recovering from injury in rehabilitation becomes their new reality.  Institutions should eliminate the party atmosphere for prospective athletes, and ensure that campus visits represent the reality of campus life without gimmicks.


Gerald S. Gurney is assistant professor of adult and higher education at the University of Oklahoma and immediate past president of the National Association of Academic Advisers for Athletics. Jerome C. Weber is Regents Professor of Education and Human Relations at Oklahoma.

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