Can We Perfect NCAA Early Signing?

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In the best case scenario, a verbal commitment in college football would be like being engaged.  It says, I’m going to this particular school, and the rest of you should stop chasing me.  In the real world, a verbal commitment is like being engaged to a Kardashian – it gets your name on TV and everyone talking about you for about two months, but you keep your options open.

127 of the ESPN top 300 high school football recruits for the class of 2018 have already verbally committed to a school.  In spite of this, most of these kids will continue to take recruiting visits to other schools, and probably a third of them will end up signing with schools other than the one they are currently committed to.  This is not a huge surprise.  These are, after all, kids, and the biggest choice they have made prior to this is probably what color tux to wear to the prom.  A lot can happen in a year.  The coach that convinced them to commit can move on.  The school can be enmeshed in scandal.  Parents get jobs in other cities.  They meet a girl who’s going to another school. 

It is in this context that we consider the news that the NCAA will allow recruits to sign a letter of intent, and effectively end the recruiting process, in December or even September, as they are contemplating?  We have no idea at this point how many of those 127 verbals consider themselves firmly committed.  For those that do, the opportunity to enjoy their senior season without being barraged by the recruiting process could be attractive.  The kid would also, we assume, be protected in case of injury.  Another potential benefit to early signing would be an end to some of the spectacle that has turned recruiting into reality TV, which doesn’t really benefit anyone. 

But what happens to the kid that signs in September if the coach that recruited them gets fired in December?  Or the school goes on probation?  We can say all we want about how the kid should choose based on the school, not the coach; but what if your kid’s school hires Art Briles?  More likely, what if your kid is a pro-style quarterback and your school fires the coach that recruited him and hires a coach who wants to run a spread offense?  Suddenly your kid is being told he’s a safety or a tight end, and his enjoyment of the game – not to mention his ability to make a living from it – is permanently altered. 

It seems unlikely that the NCAA will give the early signees an out without giving the schools one; doing more for the kid than the school is simply not something they do.  But a letter of intent is a contract, and every contract has terms and conditions under which it can be rendered void.  So let’s allow schools and kids to make a binding commitment to each other during the month of August before their senior year (high schools in most states have already played two games by the first of September) with the following outs:  teams can back out if the kid commits a crime, fails a drug test, or fails to reach the standard benchmarks that signify progress toward graduation, and kids can back out if the head coach is fired or leaves or the school is put on probation. 

You can certainly see the potential problem with this idea: The coach leaves for another job and takes all of his recruits with him, and the school he screws is left looking not only for a coach but an entire recruiting class. That can set a program back for years. But the alternative is to bind the kid to a school that may no longer be providing him the opportunity he expected or was promised.  If forced to choose between protecting an athletic department with tens of millions of dollars at its disposal and an eighteen-year-old kid, I’ll help the kid.  The school will find a way to recover. 

Of course, this is all pure fantasy.  When the NCAA voted on the rule change this year, there wasn’t anyone in the room representing the kids.  Every potential recruit isn’t a kid with dreams, after all, he’s an asset on a balance sheet, and the schools will vote in whatever way protects their investment in that asset. 

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