By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Dave Argyle (DBA Photography)
I have started and stopped writing on this topic more times than I care to admit over the past few weeks. The bottom line is that I am really not sure what I think on this topic.
In the end, despite thoughts that are somewhat muddled and not clearly defined, and despite the fact that I have more questions that solutions, I decided to do what helps me clear my head best, and that is to write them down. So, here is a compilation of things I think that I think on the topic of the commitment cycle in the recruitment of athletes for college sports.
Actually, the issues swimming around in my mind mostly impact college football and men’s basketball recruiting because those are the sports where the most time and energy is spent in public discourse. My particular concern relates to the use of the word “commit.”
I am not sure if we need to come up with a new word to describe the action of an athlete leaning towards a given university or if we just need to make sure there is a special dictionary on hand when using that word in this context, but either way, I am wondering if it is just me, or if something needs to change.
First off, I looked up the word “commitment” (online of course) in the Webster’s Dictionary, and this is what I found: “a promise to do or give something” and “a promise to be loyal to someone or something.”
To further clarify the traditional definition of the word, I looked up the word “promise” and this is what I found: “a statement telling someone that you will definitely do something or something will definitely happen in the future.”
That word “definitely” is where I stumble on the way we use the word “commit” when it comes to college recruiting. Athletes are offered scholarships, often way too early and they “commit” when the big picture has not yet unfolded, but there is nothing definite about it.
When I was a junior in high school, at Roseville High in California, we had a pretty good quarterback who was being recruited to a number of different schools. His name was Robbie Bosco.
While I do remember a lot of discussion about where he could go to school, and some related discussion on another prolific high school passer from Southern California named Sean Salisbury who was also being courted by BYU, it all came down to the day they signed letters of intent during their senior seasons. Bosco chose BYU and Salisbury signed with USC.
There was no incessant coverage of the recruiting process with dozens of people speculating on where they would go. There was no sophomore-year commitment, yet things seemed to work out just fine. Those days are long gone.
When high school sophomore-to-be Frank Jackson was moving from Lehi to Lone Peak High School and it was announced he had committed to play basketball at BYU, he had little idea how his skills would blow up over the next two years. Had he known then that major national powers like Duke could be in the mix, there is no way he would have committed so early.
Once that interest started to mount, Jackson naturally re-opened his recruiting during his junior year and eventually signed with Duke. It was the best choice for him and what he needed to do, but the process took him through making a commitment and then breaking it to make a different commitment once all the facts came into focus.
I use that as an example because it seems to be the norm. The “commitment” is more a commencement of the real recruiting process. I don’t know the percentage of athletes who commit and then de-commit, but I am sure it is significant. This is not on the athletes, per se. It is the way the process works.
Schools feel the need to offer earlier and earlier because in some cases, it pays to be the first coach to show interest in a player. And with the other factors involved, which includes intensive media coverage from traditional and non-traditional media, there are advantages to being offered and to committing.
Because commitments are generally considered to be soft, coaches sometimes feel the need to over-offer and then, when the numbers don’t balance, pull offers from some athletes who thought they had a place to go. Add in coaching changes and new priorities from the new staff and you have another dynamic entirely.
The whole process encourages coaches to look at the commitment process the same way many drivers treat a traffic light. While a yellow light is supposed to be a cautionary signal encouraging drivers to slow down and prepare to stop, many treat it instead as an invitation to hit the gas so that when the red light appears, they are close enough to the intersection that they feel good about running that red light.
When a player is offered, it is not a signal to other schools to back off recruiting, but instead it seems to have the opposite effect. The commitment is considered more as a “leaning,” and the challenge is to see who can go harder and find a way to get that player to “flip” his commitment.
Social media is filled with photos of players who have committed to a school on the official visits to another school, or with another group of coaches taking an in-home visit. And you have recruiting bloggers that cover every school racing to stay on top of who is going where so the fans (a derivative of the word “fanatic”) will have something to talk about.
And the more offers or the bigger the name on the school to which an athlete commits, the more stars that appear next to that player’s name on those all-important recruiting services. Occasionally you get an athlete who just wants to go through the process privately, but even then, we just can’t stop speculating and we have social media outlets like Twitter on which to tell the world about our “inside information.”
I know it is naive of me to think we could even entertain going back to the days when NLI day was THE DAY. Media is what it is and everyone wants to be first. Both coaches and athletes are under pressure to get into the process early so they are not left behind later on.
Like I said, I don’t know if there is a solution or if there is really a problem, or perhaps a different word we can use for “commitment.” Maybe it just comes down to semantics and I need to get over it.
I’m working on that and hopefully getting it out by writing about it will aid in my therapy.