With the college football regular season concluded, dozens of coaches begin to gear up for the part of the year that’ll define the future of their programs. No, not the bowls — the long recruiting trail (littered with hundreds of in-home visits, embittered & jilted fans, and impermissible benefits), that winds toward February’s National Signing Day. Like other diehards, I’ll wait in at least mild anticipation of those snippets of televised airtime — when recruits appear just long enough to select a hat from a table. But lately something’s been nagging at me, and it starts with Maurice Clarett.
A big-time running back recruit out of high school, Clarett justified his hype with a record-breaking freshman year for Ohio State in 2002. But his well-chronicled aftermath has made him the poster child for talented college burnouts. Putting his numerous post-collegiate arrests aside (which I realize is quite a phrase), Clarett’s real trouble began when a TA alleged that professors were giving him preferential treatment. Though academic misconduct and other benefits were pretty much established at this point, it was still startling to read the following recent quote (from Monte Burke’s book, 4th and Goal), where Clarett self-describes his time at Ohio State.
He was a hard worker in practice and in games. But off the field, he was living a completely different life. “I took golf, fishing, and softball as classes,” Clarett says. “Away from class, anything you can think of I did in my 13 months at Ohio State.” Drugs and women were two of the things. Cars were another — he owned three of them at a time, including a brand-new Cadillac and Lexus. “I was living the NFL life in college,” he says. “I got paid more in college than I do now in the UFL.”
First things first, OSU has a fishing class? How many credits is that? Second off, whoa. Clarett has recently begun to iron out his personal issues, but his last decade spent on a failed football career and some jail time serve as a harsh reminder of the systemic failures of college football. Benefits like those he received are common in today’s game — if not to that degree, than at least on a smaller, less talked-about one. If one school offers you a brand new car and a stipend every week, why wouldn’t you want to attend there? Coaches understand that harsh reality, and seem to aggressively overcompensate by offering even more.
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For the casual fan, the yearly reimbursement of talent is a near-mystical process — the next big names just appear on campus and quietly integrate themselves into the team. But I can tell you (as someone who has goten way too invested in the decisions of these 17-year-olds), that there’s an expansive scouting network for high-school players, which even rivals that of the NFL. There’s very clear rules as to how those players arrive, and just as many loopholes to undermine them.
Let’s start with the basics — each college team has a capacity of 85 scholarship slots. Those slots are filled when recruits sign a letter of intent (or LOI), which serves as a binding agreement between the student and the institution they’ll attend. One of the most widespread, and by most accounts unethical, workarounds is a term referred to as “oversigning,” which occurs when a team accepts more signed letters of intent than they have room for under the limit. The practice of oversigning, along with the entire Clarett saga, emphasizes many schools’ willfulness to take advantage of the kids they’re supposed to support.
Take the example of Elliot Porter. Porter received a scholarship offer from LSU in 2009, and signed his LOI in February 2010. He had already arrived on campus and started taking summer classes when coach Les Miles informed Porter that there had been a change of plans. Coaches had misjudged the number of signees who would academically qualify for their incoming class, and as I’m sure Miles found a way to say less bluntly: they went with a more talented guy. It’s a familiar story for many of the high-prestige teams, who can only afford the best of the best if they’re going to compete.
Over the last half decade, the SEC has increasingly dominated the national college football discussion. Much to my chagrin as a Big Ten supporter, the praises heaped on the conference by ESPN’s band of blustering pundits is somewhat warranted. An SEC school has won the national championship in each of the last six years (and are poised to make it seven barring the efforts of Touchdown Jesus). It should surprise no one that it’s the vaunted SEC that has proved the most egregious offender in the act of oversigning.
In an (approximate, unscientific) 2011 study compiled by oversigning.com, a now-defunct blog entirely dedicated to exposing the trend, 12 schools appeared guilty of the act in some capacity. Three of those (Michigan, Miami, Penn State) came in at one over their limit. Six of the top nine offenders hail from the SEC, including all of the top five — Ole Miss claims the title of oversigning champ with a whopping twelve commits over their limit, followed by Alabama (+11), LSU (+10), Arkansas (+10), and South Carolina (+6). Again, these numbers are far from definitive, but with the startling numbers above, it’s obvious that something foul is going on with these programs.
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Convincing coaches to reform their recruiting methods is unfeasible when there’s so little blowback (and in many cases, actually great reward) to their decisions. Likewise with students — only a select few high-profile names have ever been fully exposed. Cam Newton won a national title in his highly-contested year in Auburn, throughout which rumors flew about the benefits he received (though amusingly very little said about my favorite alleged crime ever).
Jim Tressel, Clarett’s coach during his year in OSU, was fired a year ago for overseeing the program during widespread violations having to do with player benefits. Despite his substantiated guilt, the program was reluctant to acknowledge any intentional wrongdoing, their school president notoriously chuckling, “I hope [Tressel] doesn’t fire me.” When the evidence became too overwhelming to ignore, Tressel was let go as ceremoniously as possible. In the last game of this year’s season, he was back on Ohio’s field during the final game, receiving a standing ovation for his past victories.
There’s a larger issue at play, and it revolves around the ethics of college football as a whole. A recent report by ESPN named the most profitable programs in the country, with Texas topping the list at $77.9 million in the last year. The players, who contribute to both the on-field product to which tickets are sold, and to the iconic jersey numbers that are sold across campus, receive profits from neither. Because of that disparity, both parties are often willing to work around the official NCAA rules.
The coverage often stops at the question of whether a team broke rules, when it should really be about the rules themselves. The most commonly cited comic example is the rule that coaches can give a bagel to a recruit… so long as it has no cream cheese. Though that’s an extreme example, it should give you some sense of the arbitrary nature of many regulations. So where do we draw the line? That question is difficult to answer without getting into the minutiae of it all. But one thing is key, the emphasis needs to shift — away from the coaches and schools who rack up the bonuses and earn the lasting plaudits, and onto the students who are attempting to grow as young men.
If that can happen it might curtail some of the worst cases of student exploitation in the sport. Like I said earlier — I, like many others, derive probably too much joy and excitement from the performances of those players. To expect that product to remain at that level without the unspoken benefits may be naive. But let’s at least give it a shot.