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Early Recruiting Hypocrisy And College Lacrosse

11 - Published August 22, 2012 by in College, NCAA

I am no longer holding back when I talk about the early college lacrosse recruiting environment. I’ve tried in the past… I really have… and I always try to be open to other ideas and perspectives, but when it comes to college lacrosse teams recruiting 15 year old kids, I just don’t think I can do it anymore. I’m done with 13 year old prodigies, and I’m done with all the BS out there. It’s time to get real.

There are more than enough people stuck on the fence already when it comes to this issue, and it’s probably high time we did some research, made a choice, and stood up for something. I apologize for taking so long, but today I pick a side on this topic, and fully fill you in on my thinking, because this is a HUGE issue, which could impact our game to its very core.

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Is this a good mentality to have? No.

College lacrosse recruiting, especially at the higher levels, has been going the way of AAU basketball for some time now. Many kids of today with college lacrosse hopes, are doing the EXACT same stuff that some of my classmates were doing in the late 90s with an AAU basketball team outside of Boston.

They’re playing one sport, year round, traveling all over the country to play in recruiting showcases, and talking about where they are going to play in college starting as freshman, or earlier. It was ridiculous back then for basketball, and it is ridiculous now for lacrosse.

Allow me to lay out why this early recruiting environment is bad for coaches, players, and amateur college athletics overall. Then I’ll show you why there is still a debate raging on this topic, and what can be done to change the situation… and make no mistake about it, the situation needs to change.

Why Early Recruiting Is Bad For Players:

Does a 7th/8th grader, freshman or sophomore know what their major will be in college? Most often, they won’t. In fact, many kids go off to college unsure about what their major will be… and yet somehow, in the lacrosse world, we have decided that kids should know where they will be going to school (to play lacrosse) by the time they are entering their junior years, or in some cases, much earlier.

What I outlined above, all by itself, is a crying shame. College is about college, not just lacrosse, and the NCAA is supposed to regulate this relationship (as the largest oversight body) on behalf of all parties involved. When it comes to placing strict limits on recruiting, however, they don’t do all that much.

I was always led to believe that college athletes were meant to be amateurs, but the pursuit of a “free market approach” seems to lay in direct contrast to the overall mission. And beyond placing lacrosse over school, the early recruiting system also hurts players in a number of other ways.

Say you’ve decided to buck the system, choose a school first, and THEN think about lacrosse. Good for you and good luck with that. You’ll need it. Say you’re a junior now, and you’ve narrowed your list of schools down to five. Applications aren’t due for another year, so you call each of the coaches at the schools, and most likely, this is the response you’ll here, “sorry, but we already filled your class.”  Wait, WHAT?

That’s right, if you’re a talented junior and you want to play D1 lacrosse for a top team, you may be out of luck. Simply stated, you started too late. Your list of schools has now been narrowed down exponentially, and you might end up at the wrong school, even if you’re a great player and student. If the options open up earlier, they close earlier too, and this is not good for players overall. It puts lacrosse above school and forces kids to make decisions before they should. It gives too much power to coaches and allows them to dictate to kids who are too young, and inexperienced, to know better.

Then you add in the fact that kids are going to recruiting camps over skill camps whenever they can, and players are actually getting worse. They don’t develop as middle schoolers and underclassmen, they are already “developed”. Really, that 14 year old kid is as good as he will ever be? You sure about that? Half the kids haven’t even hit puberty yet, and somehow we know how good they will be already. Laughable.

Why Early Recruiting Is Bad For Coaches:

From what I said above, it seems like Coaches should love this set up because they can line up their classes early, and get tons of quality kids in the door, but I think the overall atmosphere it creates is a bad thing, that many college coaches are more frustrated than they may let on.

I was able to speak to a number of coaches this Summer off the record, from the highest levels of D1 to the lowest, and they all remarked on how “crazy” the Summers have become. Many noted that they now work all Summer, and will be out “softly” recruiting kids almost every single day during June, July and August. They’re mobbed by Juniors they don’t have room for, and after they check out some sophomores, it’s off to watch the top freshman from one area, and then 8th graders from somewhere else. Once the recruiting trail ends, it’s back to school to prep for a week or two before classes, and practices, start back up.

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Fans, parents and coaches at a sophomore all-star game.

The atmosphere is more competitive and driven than ever AND there are more questions as to how younger players will adapt and grow. These guys are spending less and less time with their families, and they are spending less time away from the game. Assistants are being put through the ringer for very little pay, and the pressure to be EVERYWHERE is immense.

The big programs are able to afford it and have larger staffs, while the smaller guys try their best to scrap and catch up. It is a self-perpetuating arms race, and if a coach wants to keep his job, there is just no way they can jump off the speeding train, even if he can never get to the front car.

Many of these guys don’t have the time (or the platform) to complain about, or change, any of it either. They’re just trying to keep their heads above water. The programs who benefit aren’t saying anything on the record, because wins are all-important. Maybe the less successful teams just don’t want to look like they are complaining. For whatever reason though, the silence is almost deafening.

Why Early Recruiting Is Bad For THE GAME:

If you can be recruited to play D1 lacrosse when you’re in 8th grade, the incentive structures change drastically. Kids start to focus on lacrosse in a more primary manner, can get burnt out, and “tiers” begin to pop up across the lacrosse world. This has already happened in basketball, and even soccer, here in the US, and it is antithetical to the positive community approach lacrosse has long possessed.

The kids who played AAU basketball often did not play other sports at my high school, at least not for the most part. One kid played football, and one kid played baseball, but the majority of them JUST PLAYED BASKETBALL. One basketball player would have been the best soccer player in our town hands down, but his buddies told him basketball was where it was at. And this goes back to my earlier point, about Hurting Players; kids are often forced to make a choice they shouldn’t really have to make, and can miss out on other great opportunities, all while specializing.

If kids want to specialize, I don’t have a problem with it. I really don’t. But when THE primary way to play D1 lacrosse is to specialize in just the sport, and it is supported by the very rules of the next level’s governing body, it’s a different situation. I’ve shown how it can hurt the players as athletes, but I also think it can hurt them as people.

Some of these guys seemed to think they were somehow elevated above the other athletes in our school (even if my friends and I used to beat them in the school volleyball tournament.. sometimes) because of their AAU success. And sometimes we even treated them way. Even though they won a state championship for my high school, I always got the feeling they cared more about the club team they all played on, because THAT was their key to college, and small amounts of fame.

The sad thing about all that was that not ONE of those guys ended up playing D1 basketball. NOT ONE. One kid, who also played AAU with my high school classmates, eventually made it to the NBA as a twelfth man for a couple years, but the best any of my contemporaries did was NCAA DII. There is NOTHING wrong with DII, but you know what? Each of them could have made those teams without ever playing AAU! They were all great athletes, and great basketball players. They could have taken all that travel time and practiced shooting or dribbling or playing locally. GUARANTEE they would have been just as good, but the great basketball machine said otherwise…

We also had a two year old varsity lacrosse program at my high school, and we sent three kids to D1 schools to play. All three of them were star three-sport athletes. Get those three lacrosse players on a basketball court against the basketball guys and it would be an uneven, but real, game. Do the same on a lacrosse field? Destruction. I’ll take a well rounded athlete any day.

Yet for some reason, this has become more and more rare in lacrosse as well, and our sport is definitely starting to look a lot more like AAU basketball. Does it have anything to do with elite teams and recruiting events? There is no question.

There are more kids now than ever who “JUST play lacrosse”. From their middle school years on, they play year round, focus on their club teams heavily and have made D1 college lax their dream. Why have they done this? It’s simple, it has happened in other sports, and now lacrosse has given them the opportunity to do the same! Deep down though, I’m not so sure the kids are really loving it.

I had numerous kids tell me this Summer how they felt “burnt out” from lacrosse or how they wanted to play soccer, or football, or even hockey, but were worried about losing their spot on some “elite” club team. They were worried about not staying up with their classmates, and they were worried about “being seen”. Most of these kids were between 12 and 15. If no one else finds this nauseating, then I’ll stop…

The fact is, my classmates in high school did NOT get that much better by playing so much AAU basketball. They did not become better athletes by focusing on one sport, and in the end, none of them got D1 scholarships out of it. Sure basketball is more competitive than lacrosse, but the sad final tally is that some of them may have sold themselves a bit short, and the ones who didn’t play two or three sports sold their school short. They were told they’d never be good enough if they didn’t go full time with basketball, and unfortunately, they all bought that line, even though it was total crap.

Is it possible to become a D1 athlete by focusing on one sport? OF COURSE IT IS. One need look no further than Peter Baum for a great recent example. Then again, Rob Pannell earned varsity letters in lacrosse, golf, basketball AND football and Steele Stanwick played soccer, basketball and lacrosse… so there’s always that as well. Some might argue that in order for kids from “non traditional areas” to go D1, they need to follow the Baum path, but Henry Schoonmaker is at Syracuse, went to the same high school as Baum, and managed to play football for two years. Maybe you need to focus on lacrosse more to “catch up”, but even in the wilderness of Oregon, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Lacrosse is a great game for many reasons, but one of the best ones is that it combines SO MANY elements from other sports into one tough game, and to think that by focusing just on lacrosse, bigger improvements can be made is an iffy statement at best. Life teaches us about lacrosse, and vice versa. The same is true for other sports and lacrosse, but we seem to be losing that understanding quite quickly.

Who Does Early Recruiting Help?

Early recruiting really only helps a couple of core groups:

It helps the people who run recruiting events and elite teams. They have more kids to hit up, more events to hold, and more power over younger and younger players. Some of these guys are ALSO college coaches, and that only makes it murkier.

It helps Media Outlets. These guys can pump out stories on the next 13 year old prodigy, there is no accountability, and kids love seeing their names in lights. The readers clamor for it, and the remarks made about freshmen in high school verge on obscene. Knowing a reporter, and getting a good word out to the public, can make or break a potential recruiting class. The media loves it, but almost everyone else suffers.

The reasoning offered up as to why it’s done is so hypocritical I can’t even wrap my head around it. Basically, it boils down to “it’s legal and it drives page views”, but hey, so does porn! That excuse is a joke, and tries to lay off any true responsibility. That’s just the modern media approach these days it seems! Is this “sexy news”? Then let’s run with it!

It helps parents who feel lost. The recruiting scene is wild and wooly, to be sure, and many parents enter it with the absolute best of intentions. However, the demand for their child to be seen creates a dangerous combination of money, power and politics, and commensurate supply quantity does not always mean quality.

The Possible Solutions:

I have heard more round about excuses as to why the early recruiting environment won’t change, but each and every one is a total cop out. Let me repeat that, EVERY excuse out there is a TOTAL COP OUT. The only way to change things is to change them, not talk about why it’s too hard.

When the NCAA says it is not their place to regulate earlier recruiting, they are, for lack of a better term, full of it. That is precisely their job, and why they are there in the first place: to regulate college athletics, and keep them amateur in nature. The NCAA’s failure to do this with basketball should concern us all.

When college coaches say they can’t compete if they don’t take a different approach, they too are full of it. There are kids out there RIGHT NOW, juniors and seniors, who aren’t committed anywhere. If the coaches hadn’t “filled” their classes two years ago, they would still have room for these kids. If you’re only recruiting early, it’s your choice to do so. Want to see a change? It just might have to come from you, the Head Coach, and it will be risky. Will any Head Coaches take this risk? The way things are set up now… maybe, but probably not.

If we can learn anything from basketball here, it is that neither the NCAA nor the Coaches should be expected to do much. They either lack the will, or the motivation, and unfortunately, this seems to leave all that additional weight on the players and their parents.

It doesn’t have to be that way though. When the NCAA proposed new face off rules, people were pissed off, and made their voices heard. Those changes may now be modified, but for some reason, this does not happen with early recruiting in any real way. That is part of the reason I am finally writing this post.

It’s time for lacrosse to stand up and make a change. The excuse that Peter Lasagna hints at in InsideLacrosse’s recent article is no longer valid. “Because we can” simply isn’t good enough anymore. If the NCAA won’t change things, and the coaches won’t change things, the rest of the community may need to step in and get loud. I’m sick of seeing lacrosse placed above academics, and I’m sick of kids committing to schools before they have ever played a single varsity game. It is a travesty of amateurism, a disservice to the youth, and it runs directly opposite to the supposed values of the NCAA.

When the government doesn’t do its job, the people must step in and make a change. Unfortunately for college lacrosse, the NCAA may have reached that point already with this issue. Do we, the larger community, need to step in here? Is there enough passion to make a difference? Or do we WANT to become the NBA and see kids going to play ball for a year and then dropping out to go pro? Is that REALLY what we want our sport to aspire to?

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