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Early Recruiting Proposals Could Prove Problematic

Up until about a couple months ago I was actually a big fan of the idea of Early Recruiting Proposals that sought to strictly limit contact between college coaches and potential student-athletes, it seemed like a lot of people were on the same page, and things were heading in the right direction.

After participating in a number of truly interesting conversations, where my assumptions were truly challenged, I’m starting to see a serious potential problem with limiting the recruitment of student-athletes AT ALL. I know, this is an extreme 180 degree turn, but hear me out, and then reply to this story with your ideas. I’m not sold on anything yet… but I’m starting to have some serious doubts about placing official limits on early recruiting.

Let’s first run through the current system really quickly. Then we’ll run through the basic ideas of a current proposal, and what it aims to achieve. THEN, we’ll talk about potential unseen problems… and other potential solutions. That’s where it really gets interesting.

The Current Early Recruiting Scene

There are some rules restricting contact between coaches and recruits right now, but they are confusing. Loopholes can be found and exploited by players, parents, and coaches. It’s basically regulated big business, and it’s a cut throat world of pressure and achievement, kind of like D1 sports themselves. This is not a knock on any of that, just reality.

There are dead periods (where no contact is allowed), quiet periods (where recruits can visit coaches on campus, but coaches can’t visit recruits), and active periods where it’s more of a free for all. Coaches can not contact kids with recruiting materials before a certain year in high school, and while this can vary by sport, it’s centered around the high school student’s junior year (and sport season) in most cases. Kids (and parents), on the other hand, can contact coaches at any time with a phone call or email, and schools can send kids “school brochures” at almost any time.

According to the rules above, one might think it would be rare for coaches to get verbal commitments from kids before their Junior year, but it happens regularly, in almost all sports. While a verbal commitment isn’t binding, it does mean that serious conversations on some level have happened between the college coach and the player/family. So when an 8th or 9th or 10th grade student “verbally commits” to a school, it’s not random. There have been conversations, and these conversations have taken place way before the child’s junior year.

Once a student reaches a certain grade level, they can sign a National Letter of Intent (only if they are receiving a scholarship), or make a somewhat more official commitment/announcement to the school. Of course they still have to get accepted to the school and qualify academically. Committed players can switch commitments or drop their commitment, and coaches can do the same. Even scholarships are only guaranteed for one year.

This is our current reality in D1 lacrosse, more or less.

The New Early Recruiting Proposals

The vast majority of the new proposals seek to do one major thing, and that is to eliminate all contact between COACHES and RECRUITS before September 1st of the student’s Junior year in high school.

The overarching idea (and it’s a good one on its face) is to cut out all the drama and early stratification of players into “elite” and “everyone else” levels. With NO RECRUITING being done before a player’s junior year, the player is less worried about shining now, and more focused on the having fun, and getting better for the future. It’s less about club teams, and more about town/high school lacrosse. From my idealistic soapbox, this all seems great. Town lacrosse is fine. 5th graders really don’t need to play elite travel lacrosse all over the country. But some do it anyway. C’est la vie.

But the idea is that if a kid can’t “verbally commit” to a program, the pressure might go away, everyone refocuses on just playing the game for what it is, and players’ first two years in high school (and even 8th grade) shift back to development, instead of current performance and concerns over being recruited as a 14 year old. Again, this all makes sense from an idealistic point of view.

However, I have some serious concerns about how this would actually play out when idealism meets reality.

Early Recruiting Proposal Could Prove Problematic

So what made me change my mind about this proposal? A couple of things actually. Allow me to explain:

POINT 1 – My own bias was factoring in – Back in 1999, I didn’t get recruited by anyone until I was a junior in High School, and even then the contact was extremely limited. Honestly, I had no idea if I could even play college lacrosse at any level, but I found a great fit in Wesleyan University, and I started all four years, and it was the perfect level of academics and lacrosse for me. Academics were really the reason I went there. Lacrosse was just a bonus. I never played a single minute of high school club ball. It didn’t really exist back then like it does now. Go back even further, and guys like Dom Starsia learned how to play lacrosse while at Brown. So things have changed a bit, to say the least.

Thinking back on things however, I started to realize that I had convinced myself that my situation was the same case for all my classmates at Weston High School back in the late 90s, and how this could be the case now, but when I really stop and think about it, this is simply not true. Other kids in “bigger sports” were thinking about D1 opportunities as early as middle school, it was a different world, and I had no idea what was going on. While most of my classmates weren’t talking to D1 coaches as freshmen, some were talking about going D1, getting a scholarship, and being in contact with coaches either directly, or through their AAU coaches, in the case of my basketball playing classmates.

The fact is, recruiting hasn’t really changed all that much. Kids have long been worried about wrapping up a spot on a college team, and coaches were contacting kids before their junior year. Maybe not so much for lacrosse, but certainly for basketball and football. I had my head in the clouds about all this. I didn’t realize my path was not the only path.

Is there more early recruiting pressure now? I think so. It seems to have increased since my days.

Is it really all that different? Not really. Kids have always worried about this stuff.

Recruiting “great” athletes at a younger age than merely “good” athletes isn’t new. Maybe the coaches are looking at younger kids now than before on average, but this phenomenon is far from recent, and I’m not sure that a new restrictive rule will do enough to change the underlying culture that has existed for decades.

Point 2 – Does The Proposal Actually Reduce Pressure? – The current proposals in front of the NCAA definitely restrict contact, but I’m not sold on the idea that they do a single thing to actually reduce the pressure kids feel right now to be recruited. Some of it has to do with the overarching culture of sports recruitment, which I laid out above.

Another aspect is our current set up in lacrosse.

Currently, if you’re worried about playing high level sports in college, you can play for a club team, get seen (or not), and get recruited (or not). Some kids just play for their high schools, but it seems to be less and less common. If no one is showing interest, you know you need to do a lot more. On SOME level, you know where you stand. The kid who is being recruited also knows this. Maybe he takes his foot of the gas, or maybe he works harder. I haven’t seen a single study pointing in either direction.

Claiming one avenue as “proven” with little to no evidence in support of that is questionable practice. Believing that something is a problem is one thing. Figuring out a proven workable solution is quite different.

The crux of Point 2 is this: If you know that on September 1st of your Junior year you’ll either be flooded with calls and letters, or will receive nothing, has the pressure really gone away? Or has it all just built up to September 1st? Maybe 8th graders aren’t as interested in the whole “recruiting” thing, but I find that contention to be highly dubious… if anything, these kids could be even more stressed out because for three years they will have no idea of where they truly stand in the eyes of college coaches, but our current set up tells them they should be thinking about it.

Here’s a simple question: When do you feel more stressed out – when you KNOW what’s going on? Or when you are totally lost in a process you can’t navigate at all?

The new proposals actually seem to be arguing for the latter as a better option. Maybe it will work, but again, I have some serious doubts. The majority of them stem from the idea that when you do NOT have info, what do you do? You try to get info. So how would that happen here?

Point 3 – Club Teams and COACHES Become MORE Important – So now a kid can’t talk to a coach before their junior year. Neither can a parent. Ok, so who can? Hmmm… let me think… the kid’s CLUB COACH can!!!! Wait, I thought this rule was supposed to push the importance of club teams downwards? Oh, it makes clubs MORE important? GREAT.

Here’s how it works:

Club Team A has a connection to D1 School X, and while the coach at School X doesn’t talk directly to any of the Team A players, he does talk to their coaches (because they are friends of course, he is not recruiting), and now Coach X already has his eye on a couple of their 2022 players. Coach X says, “I saw tape on YouTube and I really like players A, B, C, and D. Tell me more about those kids”. Club Coach A says “all good kids, except C, he lacks character”.

Now, Coach X knows about 3 kids he will recruit on September 1st of their Junior year, and ALL the info he get from them was second hand, from their club coach. He has also potentially cut a kid out because he lacks “character” (or he moved to another club), at least according to the club coach. He doesn’t call their high school coach, because they haven’t played any high school lacrosse yet. ALL OF THIS has happened without the player or parent knowing about any of it. OR the club coach is acting as a liason between the coach and player and is the middle man for communication, basically acting as a D1 sports agent. Either way, this would be a disastrous result to remove players from their own process.

The ONLY thing that changed in this scenario is that the kid and his parents now know LESS, and all the recruiting was done behind closed doors between two grown men who are not the kid’s parents. If you do not think this will happen (or that it isn’t happening already) then you simply don’t understand how this whole thing works.

Club coaches currently control the reins of recruiting. They coach the teams the college coaches will watch each fall and summer. Coaches can not watch much high school lacrosse due to their own season. If a college coach can’t talk to a player, but he can still watch them play in person, the pressure is very much still there.

So maybe you want to take the coaches away from those Summer/Fall events? Well, videos and stat books “for parents” will pop up everywhere. Those videos and stats will really be for college coaches, so they can get an early look at the next stud 8th grade midfielder from California or Texas, or Alberta.

How could you create a system where coaches won’t look at talented youngsters? Honestly, the more I think about it, the less I believe it to be possible.

If we raise the age and restrict contact even further, I don’t see hungry college coaches slowing down much, if at all. With six figure contracts and their careers on the line, it’s not going to happen. Right now, coaches will call a kid up, offer him a verbal commit spot, and tell him he has 2 days to make a choice. If a new rule mandates that this happens during the kid’s junior year, and not in the three years before, the window may be even shorter. “Hey kid, commit in the next 2 minutes or I’m going somewhere else”.

How is that any better?

Condensing the recruiting process from 4-5 years down to 1-2 years seems like a decent idea in general. It could even help the situation over the long-term, but I’d like to see a lot more legwork done before it’s enacted and an overnight change of that magnitude seems risky, and unproven.

The current club structure won’t disappear overnight. College coaches won’t suddenly stop talking to club coaches either. Kids won’t stop worrying about college commitments, and neither will parents. With the current proposal, I don’t see any of it stopping, I just see it going further and further underground, where truly anything can happen, and where free information is tightly controlled.

The idea of a “dark commit”, unknown to anyone but the player and coach, is not tantalizing to me in the least, on any level.

A Workable Solution?

It may seem like I’m vilifying college and club coaches here, or that I think they have no moral compass. If that’s your takeaway from this, then I applaud you for sticking up for the grown men in this situation and not the kids trying to make the biggest decision of their lives so far.

For the most part, successful college and club coaches are simply driven individuals, and not recruiting monsters, as some people paint them. The club coaches want their kids to be recruited and go to great schools, and the college coaches want to recruit great kids and win games. It’s a passion project for all of them, but it is also a livelihood, their career, and a matter of personal pride. There is, quite simply, a lot on the line.

If you had the choice between “illegally recruiting” a kid before September 1st of his junior year, and possibly losing your job (and your house and your kids’ school, etc), which are you going to choose? If it’s not technically “illegal” to talk to a club coach, why not do it? If the best freshman in high school tells his club coach he NEEDS to play at School Y, and his club coach sees Coach Y at a bar… is Coach Y really going to say, “I’ll talk to him in 2 years!”, or will he say, “we have a spot for him… wink, wink, nudge, nudge”? Again, think of what’s on the line here. Maybe some coaches will follow the rules to a T. Others will not. And it will ALL be hidden from view.

My recommendation is to open up recruiting to all ages, and place no restrictions on it at all.

Seriously… that’s my proposal. Any coach can talk to any player whenever they want – no dead periods, no quiet periods. Players can sign NLIs when they are in 6th grade for all I care. Take the wheels off this thing completely. Let it be crazytown.

What would this accomplish? SELF REGULATION.

The first reason is that coaches can NOT recruit 10 different classes of kids at once. It would make their heads explode. Today I’m looking at 2019s, tomorrow 2029s. Not going to happen. It’s too much. So all programs will need to create some cut off points.

Now, School X may decide not to recruit kids before their sophomore year. School Y may go earlier, or later. School A may recruit some 5th graders. School X may decide to then recruit School A’s sophomore recruits. School A may then decide that recruiting kids so early isn’t a great idea, because many of them end up leaving for other schools later in the process. It becomes a wasted effort when a lot of your commits end up as de-commits. There is a pain point here for everyone. While big time programs may have an advantage here, I fail to see how they don’t have an advantage now, or under the new proposals, and at least this one is somewhat transparent.

In addition to the above, there could be a need for a recruiting review service, which allows players and parents to “rate” college coaches on their honesty, follow through, and recruiting etiquette. Instead of coming up with all these rules and regulations, allow players and parents to provide honest feedback on the process, how coaches handle it, and allow players to choose schools with a full set of information. Current players should be able to anonymously report on their programs, and all of this should happen through the NCAA.

Equations, markets, negotiations, agreements, transactions, etc all function more cleanly with a full plate of information included. It leads to less buyer’s remorse, less seller’s remorse, and a more honest interaction. So instead of limiting contact and information, the solution may be to open it up completely, allowing for a free flow, and a less obstructed path. Want to cut down on the overflow of recruiting? Limit the number of coaches who can “recruit” players to only one or two coaches per program. That alone would likely have a bigger impact than changing an arbitrary date of first contact because it would force coaches to focus only on high probability kids, and would cut out a lot of the commit/de-commit process.

When a coach develops a really bad reputation, it would be known, by everyone. If no one wants to go there, he will lose his job. Again, this would seemingly self-regulate the process and how it is handled, as opposed to having a top down rule, which pushes it all underground.

Summary

While I love the idea of allowing kids to be kids and playing sports for fun for as long as possible, but currently I do not believe that a simple rule change is going to have the impact we all hope for. The elite lacrosse “club” culture has come too far to be knocked away by the NCAA. It will remain, and it will be a big part of the future of recruiting.

Top level players will still be looked at by driven coaches, and underhanded conversations will continue on. Mandating a hard start date to the process will simply drive the early recruiting aspects further underground in my opinion.

If we want to focus on more kids playing longer and enjoying this great sport, perhaps our efforts should not be focused on the elite levels of the game at all, but instead on the broader levels? What is being done to actually improve the quality of the experience for the non-recruited athletes? Why sponsor and/or partner with recruiting tourneys at all? Why host a U15 National Championship tournament? Does this not simply feed back into the the early recruiting and elitism that is supposedly the problem here?

Why not host large “jamboree” style tourneys with no champions, and no medals/trophies? Why not pursue more inclusive events, and less “national team” level stuff? There are tons of kids out there right now who just want to play the game and have fun. Sure, clubs are big, and some kids won’t play outside of their “club”, but who cares? Find some other kids!

Growing the game isn’t about recruiting in or retaining the best existing players, it’s about finding NEW players to enjoy the game at any level. Create a fun environment and kids will flock to it. If the elite kids want to worry about D1 scholarships when they’re 13, then let them.

The answer is not to stop something that is going to happen. I just don’t believe you can stop crazy from being crazy, so let’s a least keep it above ground and in open view.

The answer is to provide a positive experience for the kids who just want to play. There are plenty of them out there, so let’s do more for them.

I’m open to be convinced otherwise, so hit me up with ideas, comments, etc, in the comments or on Twitter.