Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The New Recruiting Battlefield for College Football

On Sunday's New York Times, we read about the new trend in college football recruiting.  This is seven-on-seven football, a game played without helmets, pads, or linemen and which showcases only the skill players.  According to the Times, this is the "new face" of college recruiting, rapidly growing in the last three years and soon to rival the AAU circuit that now heavily influences college basketball.  In the words of a high school coach, "[t]he sport of football is slowly turning into the basketball, from the street agents to A.A.U.-type football."

College coaches are none too happy about it. From the Times article, we find that University of Texas coach Mack Brown and former University of Florida coach Urban Meyer are worried about this new trend. “College football is doing great, and it’s the second-most-popular sport in the country," according to Meyer, "but there’s some things we have to get our arms around.” The proliferation of seven-on-seven football is taking the game to the grassroots, which in turn will take power and control away from these high-profile coaches and pass it over to what the article calls "street agents" and other third parties.

I hate to be cynical about this, I really do, but something about the reaction from the coaching community feels funny.  Here are coaches who make three and four million dollars a year worried that college recruiting will no longer consist in showing up at high school football games and flashing their credentials. So when they tell us that they worry about the game of college football as we know it, it is hard to take their concerns to heart.  The conflict of interest is obvious.

In the meantime, Yahoo! Sports is reporting that Jim Tressell, head coach at Ohio State and paragon of ethics, might have known that his players had broken NCAA rules last April yet did not disclose it and might have even lied about it when asked. According to Stewart Mandel, "few coaches in America have maintained a more pristine image than the so-called Senator." And yet even the so-called senator might have gone a bit farther than he should have.  Could it be that Tressel kept the violations quiet in the hopes that it would all go away?  Could it be that he put a winning season ahead of playing by the rules?

It really is hard to be cynical about this, but when you put these two stories together, it is hard to buy what Meyer and Brown are selling.  In saying this, I am not at all suggesting that AAU ball is a good thing for high school athletes, nor do I think that AAU coaches have the best interests of high school players at heart.  Far from it.  (If you have any doubts about this, look no further than George Dohrmann's terrific account of AAU ball, Play Their Hearts Out.) But it is also quite clear that college coaches are not the voice of these student athletes either.  

There is no easy answer.  But let us not pretend that the very coaches who over-sign players with impunity and often treat them as disposable commodities will be the ones speaking on their behalf.

College coaches live by one creed: in the words of the inimitable Al Davis, "Just win, baby." Please don't insult our intelligence by pretending otherwise.

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