The NCAA’s Journey to Stay Ahead of the Recruiting Game

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In October 2018, a New York jury returned guilty verdicts against two former Adidas employees and a rising sports agent. The jury concluded that the three “funneled money to the families of college basketball recruits in exchange for the prospects’ commitment to teams sponsored by Adidas.” Despite the NCAA having a 427 page manual detailing every aspect of intercollegiate athletic recruiting and scholarships, these headlines are common. Coaches and players still find loopholes, hence the publicized scandals, which leads to a more reformed and lengthy set of NCAA guidelines the following year. These misconducts have dated back to the beginning of collegiate sports and is at the center of the creation of the NCAA.

The First Scandal

One of the first popularized intercollegiate misconducts occurred in 1855 during the Harvard-Yale rowing competition. Questions of eligibility arose when the Harvard team chose a coxswain who had graduated two years earlier. At that time, intercollegiate athletes were the only governing body and they were left to set the reform agenda and make decisions. This self-governance began to change as interest in higher education and the commercialization of athletics increased. Intercollegiate sports, especially football, began to transform from a fun leisurely activity to a commercialized and profitable market. At that time, President Roosevelt identified the need for a governing body and guidelines to prevent the injuries and deaths that were occurring in college football. Following a white house meeting, Chancellor Henry MacCracken of New York University organized a meeting of 13 colleges. In 1906 this group established the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States in 1906, later the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA.)

The Rise of Scholarships

In an effort to make sports regulations more uniform in the early years, the NCAA produced its first manual in 1906. These guidelines banned “the offering of inducements to players to enter Colleges or Universities because of their athletic abilities.” The NCAA wanted schools to draw their talent from the general student body instead of recruiting and offering scholarships. At the time, the NCAA considered giving financial aid based on ability to be as unethical as paying a salary. Despite the NCAA’s effort to embrace the amateur ideal of sourcing talent from the established student body, colleges still recruited to get the nation’s best.

In 1935, there was a rising black market around football commits. The SEC joined together and agreed to offer grant-in-aid scholarships in order to end paying the players under the table. Kentucky athletic director at the time, Chet Wynne, told the Associated Press, “it is a progressive step and places the Southeastern above most conferences of the country.” This prompted the NCAA to pass resolutions that outwardly condemned athletic scholarships at that year’s annual convention. But at the time, the NCAA did not have an enforcement arm, so the scholarships continued and became more popularized.

The NCAA revisited the scholarship issues in 1948, when they enacted the “Sanity Code” which prohibited schools to award athletic scholarships based solely on athletic talent. Once again, schools continued to violate this because of the overly restrictive rules and an ineffective enforcing committee. For these reasons, the NCAA repealed the code in 1951. In 1952, for the first time, the NCAA released a set of guidelines that legalized scholarships for the purpose of attracting qualified student-athletes to their programs. Additionally, the NCAA established a committee that had sanctioning power besides solely expulsion. In 1964, former president of Texas Tech, Dr. William Davis created the National Letter of Intent through the Collegiate Commissioners Association. The NLI is the official agreement between a player and a school that they will attend that school for one academic year. When an NLI is signed, other schools have to honor this and stop their pursuit of the athlete.

The Race to Get Creative

With each year’s manual, coaches find new loopholes to the NCAA’s recruiting process. On its website, the NCAA has a digital collection of its manuals dating back to 2000. Terminology and recruiting regulations vary greatly across the years. For example, in the 2000 manual, it simply states “a member institution may provide entertainment, at a scale comparable to that of normal student life and not excessive in nature, to a prospect.” Coaches found many interpretations for terms like ‘normal’ and ‘excessive.’ One year later, the NCAA clarified its entertainment guidelines. The 2001 manual elaborated with six subsections with clarification on complimentary tickets, professional tickets and excessive entertainment.

The NCAA has made countless revisions to the scholarship and recruiting rules since its 1906 establishment. Programs continue to get creative to reel in the nation’s top talent. In 2005, Deryk Gilmore and the University of Oregon staff created custom comic books with the recruit as the hero that leads the team to a national title. The NCAA at the time only allowed teams to send letter sized, black-and-white pages to recruits. So, Gilmore sent one page of the comic book a week. When the recruit came for an official visit, the bound, colored book was sitting on a table next to a fake Sports Illustrated cover with the prospect in an Oregon uniform. In 2006, the NCAA banned the comic books, stating that only material created by coaches could be made to recruits.

Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky stated, “every time they change the rules, somebody comes up with something. Invariably, that means they get right up to the edge of the line sometimes. The unfortunate thing is the line is not always clearly defined.”

The 2018-2019 NCAA Division I manual fills up 427 pages and outlines every aspect of collegiate athletics imaginable. Yet somehow, seasoned coaches and players still find the loopholes. Around 146 pages are dedicated to the recruiting and scholarship process. The manual outlines the general guidelines for topics including contact periods, camps, recruiting transfers etc. Exceptions for each sport are then listed below. For example, the general rule on telephone calls under subdivision is that they “may not be made before September 1 at the beginning of his or her junior year.” This is followed by, “In football, one telephone call to an individual may be made from April 15 through May 31 of the individual’s junior year.” Almost every general rule is followed by a few exceptions.

Early Verbal Commitments

Although there are over 146 pages that specifically outline the formal process of recruiting, this does not stop colleges from offering verbal commitments earlier on in high school. The NCAA does not recognize verbal commitments and does not even print the word ‘verbal’ once in the 427 page manual. The NCAA does define a verbal commitment on their website as “when a college-bound student-athlete verbally agrees to play sports for a college before he or she signs or is eligible to sign a National Letter of Intent.”

A prospective athlete can verbally commit with this non-binding agreement as early as they would like. In fact, in February of this year, a 12 year old, Alexia Carrasquillo, verbally committed to the University of Florida for softball. She is the youngest athlete to ever verbally commit. NCAA Research released results of their 2017 survey that identify the possible implications of this early verbal commitment.

The Implications of Earlier Commitment

While there is a lot of attention on men’s collegiate football and basketball recruiting, reports from NCAA Research actually show that it is girls who are much more likely to be the focus of early recruiting. 15,454 recruited Division I student athletes responded to this survey. In only three Division I men’s sports did more than 20% of athletes report having their first contact with a college recruiter in freshman year or earlier. Eight female sports passed this 20% threshold, with basketball hitting 47%. NCAA Research tweeted out the following graphic on women’s verbal commitment timeline. It shows that one-third or more of women in DI softball, gymnastics and lacrosse report that they verbally committed by 10th grade.

As you may imagine when picking a college 4 years prior, female athletes were found to also have a higher transfer rate. The above figures show that in almost a perfect linear trend, the earlier the recruitment process started, the less positive experience the athletes reported.

Until the NCAA comes out with their updated yearly manual, collegiate programs will continue to get creative in every aspect of recruiting, committing and scholarships. The precedent has been set. This is what colleges must do in order to get the nation’s best talent. In the meantime, we can remain entertained by the breaking headlines of the latest scandal.

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