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Is Dark Recruiting Going To Be A Thing?

Welcome to the “Dark Recruiting” era!

(Or possibly not.)

The NCAA recently changed their recruiting rules to limit contact between a prospective player and NCAA coach. Before the new rule, college recruiting could begin as early as 7th or 8th grade for some talented youngsters, and many schools had traditionally filled their recruiting classes two years before the players had graduated from high school. With the new rule in place (it is in place NOW by the way according to the IWLCA on Twitter), no recruiting contact can be made with a prospective student-athlete until September 1st of their junior year in high school.

This is a HUGE rule change.

A common thread heard in lacrosse was that the current system was pushing younger and younger kids into making big decisions (that they might not be ready to make), increasing pressure on kids overall, and that more and more kids were giving up the sport, partly because the recruiting aspect of the game was so intense, early, and out of control. Another impact that was often brought up was that early recruiting took high school coaches out of the recruiting process to a large extent, as more and more kids were committing before making varsity, or playing a season of high school ball.

I can see arguments for the above thought processes, and how so many saw it as a major issue. I also had (and still have) some major reservations about how the recruiting world was (and is) evolving, and for a long time I actually agreed with the idea that limiting contact until a player’s junior year made a lot of sense, and was a perfect solution.

On the other hand, I have also talked to a lot of people who disagreed with me, and upon hearing many of their legitimate points and arguments, my view on this subject became more nuanced, and I began to worry that the fix that has been enacted may actually end up causing some tough unforeseen problems.

The biggest potential problem I see is “Dark Recruiting”, but there are some other potential issues as well, and I’ll discuss them a little later in this article.

I’m Calm, You’re Calm, We’re All Calm

Now, before we turn into Chicken Little and worry about a falling sky that isn’t truly falling, it’s important to note that we have not seen ANY of this play out. No one actually KNOWS what is going to happen. The NCAA doesn’t know, the college coaches don’t know, recruits don’t know, parents don’t know, club coaches don’t know, high school coaches don’t know, and I CERTAINLY don’t know.

I do trust the NCAA coaches to a large degree, as they deal with this on a daily basis, but I also note their inherent bias, as they are inextricably a major part of the recruiting process. This isn’t a knock on the coaches at all, but when has self-regulation ever really worked out all that well? It should also be noted that not all of the D1 coaches are completely on board with this idea.

In this case, there was consultation from USLacrosse, and others, in crafting/examing the rules, so I applaud the coaches for looking outside of their circle for input, and to USLacrosse for stepping up in a big way by working on this.

I also want to say I could be WAY off base with these concerns, so before anyone goes too crazy, let’s remember this is all still very abstract, and a lot is left to be figured out. That’s only natural. Is the headline question I ask a tad sensationalist? I honestly don’t think so – it’s a legitimate question and concern.

If you can put up a great argument against any of the points I’m about to make I want to hear it. I really do. So read on, then comment away with solid arguments. Let’s figure this thing out together. Maybe I’m freaking out about a non-issue. Convince me with reason! Please?

Dark Recruiting Concerns

So what is this “Dark Recruiting” I keep mentioning?

Under the new rule, there can be no contact before September 1st of a High School player’s Junior year. The contact that we are talking about here is “direct”, meaning the coach and player can not talk in person, make or plan official visits, or “commit” to the school, amongst a bunch of other restrictions.

A coach can still go to summer events, and even pass a player at a Summer tournament, and say “hello”, but it’s pretty limited beyond that. You can mail kids general school info materials still, but nothing about the sport they would play, or any recruiting info. No early commits, no verbals before Jr year, and no early recruiting. AT ALL. That’s the idea anyway. Here’s what else could happen…

Dark Recruiting is any “other” type of contact before September 1st of a student-athlete’s Junior year, and could be the following things:

  • Illegal early recruiting contact – any blatant violation involving direct contact – how does the NCAA monitor this? It seems almost impossible,
  • Borderline early contact – we’ll need to see some precedent set at some point for what incidental contact is allowable and what is not. What if Coach X is longtime friends with Player Y’s dad? If he goes over for a BBQ, does he have to ignore his friend’s son completely? Can he only say hello and then shuffle off to man the grill? Can they talk lacrosse at all?
  • Player-coach contact through a 3rd party – Can a club coach talk to NCAA coaches about their “underage” players? Can they relay any info to anyone? Again, precedent seems lacking and there is a lot of grey area.
  • 3rd party involvement behind the scenes – with player or parent knowledge, this could be a violation of not only this rule but also the agent rule, and without player or parent knowledge it’s just as questionable, but still possible – the basic question is will club coaches, family members, “agents”, or high school coaches talk to NCAA coaches about underage kids?

Now, do I think every D1 coach is going to break the rule using any, let alone all, of the bullet points above? HECK NO. In fact, I tend to believe most of the D1 coaches will actually take this very seriously and follow the rules to the letter of the law. I also think most kids and parents will follow the rules too, so for the majority, it’s a potentially good change as it codifies a set of expectations.

But when it comes to Dark Recruiting, I’m not talking about the majority here. There are some other possible outcomes, but here is my big question boiled down to its most basic elements:

Do we think the best players, the most alpha parents, the grimiest club coaches, and the hardest most competitive recruiters are all REALLY going to wait until September 1st of every kid’s Junior year to start the process?

And if they won’t wait, how is anyone going to find out about it? If you do find out about it, how in the world would you ever prove anything?

If the coach and player can’t talk to each other at all, what will happen here? Will some young phenom player who is dying to go to School X just wait patiently? Will their alpha parents sit idly by? What if a blue chip level recruit’s mom or dad is an alum of the lacrosse program, or friend of the current coach? Can we guarantee conversations won’t happen?

If the coach hears from a friend that some stud wants to attend his school, will EVERY coach just say “can’t even think about that for another 456 days”? Probably not, especially given the fact that the new regulations don’t specifically rule that conversation out between third parties.

What about a “skill development camp” run at School X for 8-10th graders, which could basically just be set up as a prospect day in disguise? Imaginary 9th Grader: “Coach never ‘recruited’ me at camp, but that experience was when I decided to go to School X, and Coach X was constantly praising my game and giving me extra attention. Again, he NEVER recruited me. The idea to go to the camp came from my club coach/parent/friend of the family.”

In an instructional setting, is this legit? College coaches can work at camps all Summer long, and it all seems legit to me, at least under the rules, new and old.

(I know I’m asking a lot of questions here, and not providing any answers… but give me some time. I’ll get to another idea that might work a little later.)

Other Potential Issues

Think about it this way – currently, the big problem is that kids are being forced to make a decision at an early age about where they want to go to school. Under the new system, if Dark Recruiting manifests itself, kids would now be totally uninformed in their own prospects, and on September 1st it would be a total madhouse of contact from coaches and the kid would not know where any of it was coming from.

That might seem like a small issue, and maybe it is. So here’s another one. It also might not be a huge deal…

On September 1st, Coach X calls up Player Y and says “I’ve been watching you play for 2 years at camps and tournaments, we love your game, you have great grades, your club coaches rave about you, and we want to get you on campus for a visit ASAP. In the meantime, we’d like you to verbally commit to our program, if you’re truly interested in us”.

What is the player going to say? He’s had NO direct contact, and only knows what he’s “heard” about the program second hand. It’s not unreasonable for the coach to ask the kid to commit, given the new rules and the pressure to shore up recruiting classes quickly, but it’s almost as tough a situation as asking an 8th grader to commit (both players have had zero direct contact). Sure, the junior is certainly older, but neither player has really seen anything for themselves, and that can still lead to some pretty questionable decision making.

Here’s third possible issue – the September 1st commit spree. If a school gets 10 verbal commits before September 15th, it’s going to look REALLY suspect. 10 of the best players all decided on one program in two weeks? WOAH. This could happen legitimately, but imagine how else it could happen… and that could lead to some undue speculation and a lot of drama.

Another Possible Solution

Listen, maybe the new rules will work, and they will be perfect. Maybe they won’t be. If they are not, and if they are not for some of the reasons I laid out above, here is another possible method that could be tried:

The old rules were loose, and allowed for all sorts of contacts, commitments, and de-commitments. It was messy, and possibly harmful. The new rules seek to address this, but I’m curious if the contact between coaches and players was really the issue.

What if the new rules just outlawed verbal commitments before September 1st of a player’s Junior year? That would mean players, families, and coaches could be more informed, but not have any pressure to commit before their junior year.

Kids who wanted to start the process early could do so, and while coaches might have lists of kids they want, there can be official “spot” offered, not even in a verbal context. Kids can feel out coaches, coaches can feel out kids, and they could do so over the course over 2-3 years, before anyone has to commit to anyone else. It’s an opportunity for relationship building more than anything.

Late bloomers are less worried about wrapping up a spot, early risers can continue to work on their game (instead of focusing on recruiting events only from 8th grade on) and everyone can know more, talk more, and take their time.

September 1st would become a day of excitement, informed decisions, and big announcements, not questions about “dark recruiting”, and the whole process would be out in the open, avoiding as many shady areas as possible.

Would you still have some “dark recruiting” where kids were “commiting” somewhere but just not telling anyone? Sure you would, but it wouldn’t be public knowledge and it wouldn’t be nearly as common as it is now, and that alone could help preserve the integrity of the process, if that is indeed the goal.

Final Thoughts

I applaud the NCAA, USLacrosse, and both the women’s and men’s coaches for stepping up to the plate on early recruiting. It was getting ugly in many ways, and the push to do the right thing was coming from the right place. At the same time, I think you can allow contact, but not allow commitments, and possibly get an even better end result.

Is my method a little more conservative than the NCAA’s new rule? Absolutely. And maybe they’re right with their “go big or go home” approach… but if it doesn’t work out, I think my middle path has some potential.

I have no doubt my perspective on this will change yet again, and much like NCAA recruiting rules, my opinion is not set in stone. Blow my mind, come up with something amazing, and drop some knowledge. Like I said, I don’t have all the answers. I might not even have any. Thanks again to the coaches for paying attention to this issue, and trying to do what’s best for the kids and the game. It’s a good first step.