Today is national signing day. This is the day when high school seniors formally pledge their allegiances to their colleges of choice. It is also the day when these seniors formalize their status as a cog in the much larger and unwieldy college football machine. This is the moment when these students realize their dreams by becoming the means of production. The colleges and the NCAA make a lot of money -- this past bowl season, for example, the BCS system produced a record profit of $170 million -- and the players see very little of it. And they better not even think about selling their uniforms, or useless trophies or championship rings. Needless to say, that would be illegal -- only the NCAA gets to make money from the sale of jerseys. Also, their parents better not try to get some of that money. That also would be against NCAA rules. And who gets to make money from the sale of the images and likenesses of star college athletes? The NCAA, of course. The athletes don't get a dime. They are amateurs, after all.
How convenient. Can you think of a better system of exploitation?
But it gets better. Much better.
Begin with the notion that signing a letter of intent with a college is not what it looks like. Players have four years of eligibility, so it stands to reason that these scholarships are commitments for four years. But common sense has nothing to do with this. When players sign these scholarships, they are agreeing to a one-year scholarship, renewed at the complete discretion of the head coach. Once the player signs, that is, it is a one way street. The player gets a one-year renewable, which means that they return only if the coach wants them to return. If the player decides to leave, however, he must get a release from the head coach. Unsurprisingly, whether a coach decides to release a player from his scholarship is far from automatic. According to Derek Dooley, coach at the University of Tennessee, "I have an obligation to protect the program." The obligation to protect the students resides elsewhere.
It gets worse. Under NCAA rules, a university may not sign more than 25 players in a given year or 85 players overall. It should surprise no one, however, that some schools do not see themselves constrained by these limits. This leads to the one well-known practice of oversigning players, or grayshirting. Schools sign far more players than allowed with the rules, on the expectation that some of them will never set foot on campus. Not to worry, however. If more students show up than allowed by the rules, they are encouraged to go to junior college instead, to go elsewhere, or the coach will instead release another player from his scholarship in order to make room for the new signees. Because the practice of releasing extra players will paint an undesirable picture of their program, coaches go to great lengths -- even lying -- to color the truth, or to paint a different truth.
There is no doubt that these practices are legal under the rules. It is also clear that the practice offers schools a competitive advantage over schools that choose to abide by the rules. Schools who oversign have a bigger margin of error, for example, than schools that do not. This means that they can miss on their projections on some players, since they have many others to take their places.
But to say that the practice is legal is not to say that it is morally acceptable. In a recent letter, the President of the University of Florida, J. Bernard Machen, argued that oversigning and everything that it entails, while technically legal, is morally "reprehensible." In his view,
No university would allow this for the general student body. Imagine the uproar it would cause! What needs to happen in intercollegiate athletics is that universities must accept the moral responsibility to stop and prevent "grayshirting" and its associated actions. The football programs must be accountable and should honor institutional commitments to students. It is, after all, a moral contract.In sum, students are pawns in a much larger, profit-driven and ultimately disturbing game. One can only hope that President Machen will lead the charge and force the NCAA to take the side of the student athletes for once. The new Georgia Athletic Director, Greg McGarity, appears to agree. Somehow, I am not too confident.
Think about this as you roam the internet while basking in the glory of your school's incoming freshman class.