The Travesty Of Signing Day

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
Font Size:

Wednesday was signing day. Amazingly, and sadly, the vast majority of readers will know what that means.

It is the day high school kids declare where they intend to play college football. ESPN will bring it all to you live – for the entire day. The cameras will zoom in on a seventeen year old kid seated at a table on which there are three baseball caps, each with the logo of a different college or university. The kid might fake a move to one cap, and then another. The suspense will build. Finally he will pick up one of the hats and place it on his head. Then the commentary will begin with talk of how this kid could make or break the future of football at his chosen school. Some college football fanatics apparently take the day off from work so they don’t miss any of the action.

Don’t get me wrong. I love college football. I’m an avid Duck. If I lived in Texas I would probably be an avid Longhorn, or an avid Buckeye if Ohio were my home.

But really, this is ridiculous. High school kids “signing” with colleges to which they have not applied, but by which they have been recruited on the sole basis of their football talents. Oh, they may eventually have to go through the formalities of applying and they may have to meet some very minimal standard of academic preparation, but they are signing to do one thing and one thing only – play football.

New Oregon State coach Gary Anderson told CBS Sports.com that one of the reasons he decided to leave Wisconsin was that university’s refusal to admit some of his recruits. What the heck! Imagine the temerity of any university declining to admit football recruits on the basis of their academic qualifications. Presumably Anderson is confident his Beaver bosses will be less discerning.

After all, these kids are signing to be football players, not student-athletes. Of course a few of them will be good students and will take their classes seriously, but the reality is that they really won’t have much time to be students. Unless they quit, get seriously injured or leave for the NFL, football will dominate their lives for the next four years.

Of course everybody knows college football (and basketball) are big revenue sports, that alumni and local fans demand winning teams, that coaches’ salaries are often much higher than those of their university bosses, and that that’s just the way it is. If coaches don’t recruit the best players, they won’t win and a lot of people will be unhappy.

But did you know that colleges also recruit kids for lacrosse, soccer, swimming, track, fencing, crew, ice and field hockey, skiing and even rodeo? Like football recruits, many of these kids are effectively admitted before they apply. Kids recruited for these lower profile sports may not get the royal treatment of the football players, but they do get a significant leg up in the admissions process. By some estimates being recruited as an athlete gives a kid as much as a 200 point break on the SAT. Only after coaches fill their reserved slots are the so-called “pure” applicants in line for whatever spaces are left, even if they happen to be exceptional artists, actors, musicians or whatever.

There’s something wrong with this picture. Why are our colleges and universities so intent on recruiting the best athletes for teams that most people don’t even know exist? I get it for football. Even though there are no logical reasons for academic institutions to serve as the training grounds for professional athletes nor for alumni to base their financial support on the success of the football team, that’s the world we live in.

But why are colleges and universities so intent on recruiting the best athletes for teams that could easily be filled with eager volunteers from the student body? Why do kids who happen to be exceptional athletes have an advantage over kids who just happen to be good students and might enjoy playing on a team? Are we running institutions of higher education or athletic training camps?

During the early decades of the 20th century, the University of Chicago was a college football powerhouse. Then, in 1939, its young president Robert Maynard Hutchins shut down varsity football. He said it had become too commercialized to have a place in the academy. It is unlikely that a latter Robert Hutchins will come along to cancel college football signing day.  I’m sure its here to stay.

But maybe the nationally televised scene of a 17 year old high school kid declaring where he will go to college by donning a baseball cap will inspire a few college presidents to reflect on the broader role of athletics in higher education. Is it about having winning teams and doing what’s necessary to recruit the best athletes, thereby disadvantaging lesser athletes, or heaven forbid non-athletes, in the admissions process and excluding regular students from participation in varsity sports? Of is it about recruiting the best students and providing them with a great education along with opportunities for athletic participation?