We've said it before and wish to repeat the official stance of EDSBS vis-a-vis college football recruiting: it's really, really creepy. For months--sometimes, years at a time, huge monied institutions buck their noses into the lives of 17 and 18 year old boys and woo them with everything except cash in an attempt to get them to sacrifice three or four years of their lives to play football and mum through a university education simultaneously. It's a bit like watching a live-action re-enactment of Death In Venice, with universities playing the part of the aging pederast and the recruit being the young object of affection, but minus all the plague and effete homoeroticism. ( This is Amurrica, dammit. Even our homoeroticism needs to look like a Dodge Ram commercial. Heh: Ram.)
Young man, you're so...pretty. Come dance for my university, please.
Rhetorical offramp: why, indeed, is recruiting so creepy? Begin with the drastic power differentials working here. Rex Grossman, for example, may have had the best recruiting process of any player we'd ever heard. Wealthy, relatively unnoticed by marquee programs, Grossman hurt for neither money nor personal opportunity. He just happened to enjoy playing football, and threw a wicked deep ball, a nice combo. He also had Bobby Knight pimping him to anyone who would listen, and when Steve Spurrier got a highlight tape, an offer came in a quiet, deliberate fashion.
Rex Grossman, too, had the ultimate setup for success once he arrived in Gainesville. Low-pressure reigned; not a blue-chipper, he could simply play and lie in the weeds waiting for Jesse Palmer to self-destruct at Mississippi State, racking up significant garbage time play in Spurrier-era blowouts. Rolling in it by any student standard, Grossman had the financial freedom to focus on whatever he chose to in his spare time, which by most accounts fell to the responsibility of mastering the EA NCAA games on several different game systems. Completely unpressured, Grossman thrived and grew into the role of a Heisman hopeful and eventual NFL draft pick.
Grossman, on the right: obviously not under a lot of pressure.
The one constant in this: money. Grossman succeeded because of the support he received from his parents, the relative lack of hype, and the dearth of expectations the environment placed on him once he arrived in Gainesville.
The power differential between Grossman and his environment wasn't that vast; had he not worked out as the deep bomber of Spurrier's dreams, Grossman's worst case scenario was dropping out and living comfortably on his parents' sectional sofas. He didn't owe it all to the university, and his future showed a diversity of opportunities, not one blood-filled egg of NFL hope that when cracked spilled his soul and any hope of a future onto the cold ground.
(For those of you who just missed the reference, it's to the story "The Heartless Giant," which may be the most depressing story ever written. Do not ingest near bottle of pills, razor blades, or running tree shredders.)
That's obviously the case for many university recruits. Check the interview with Michael Lewis a few months back. Lewis--no expert on college football, but certainly an accomplished economic mind--said that the NCAA exists in large part to prevent young, underprivileged black men from contacting the very people to seek to help them in an exchange of skills: wealthy white businessmen. Lewis' argument sounds typically economist-like here, a bit trenchant, rhetorically inverted, and blunt, but bearing a skein of fact. For the most part, universities deny any contact between those who fund big football programs and the recruits whose talent turns game into irresistible spectacle, a division enforced via the NCAA but whose existence continues with the tacit agreement of the NCAA's partners...the universities themselves.
Adam Smith would object. Then again, Scottish people object a lot, so take that with a grain of fairly traded salt, laddie.
Universities protect their incomplete free market through the NCAA. The NCAA makes itself a great target through poorly defined mission, sure. (Listen to Myles Brand circumscribing the topic when addressed makes one think he'd be a perfect White House Press Secretary, North Korean Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, or superb divorce lawyer.) Yet it's really only the gatekeeper, propped up through an arcane series of codes and regulations arbitrarily enforced through a process we can only define as random draws of paper slips from THE BAD IDEA HAT.
(If you're not familiar with THE BAD IDEA HAT, we'll lay out the concept quickly. It's the device all bad governments and body politics use to determine harebrained policy. A friend of ours came up with the idea in Laos when the government decide to rip up an old street, repave the whole thing during only daylight hours when traffic swelled to stroke-level intensity, and then neglected to install the gas and water lines underneath the road. The whole thing was ripped up and repaved at extravagant cost to a nation whose per capita yearly income is equal to a weekend's tailgating bill for you. Thus: THE BAD IDEA HAT.)
Current guardian of THE BAD IDEA HAT.
If players were treated like hotshot teen programmers fending off Microsoft's advances, or even given the courtesy term of professional football interns, this would be a different story. In fact, that may be the most honest term for college football players: football interns. They do work for the university, raking in returns at major universities far above the money laid out for them by their sponsor.
Crucial differences emerge, though. Interns aren't typically under contract, and aren't obligated to sit out for one year professionally should they decide to work for someone else. Interns at other companies also aren't signed to four-year contracts, and stand a much, much better chance of getting on professionally than their brethren in football. So football players are denied the courtesies extended to interns while simultaneously denied the opportunity to network effectively with wealthy alums by the NCAA.
That's a perfectly engineered power differential there: the labor gets a pittance in return for the eventual payoff. This power differential is not as drastic at universities with low athletic profiles; in fact, at a place like Vanderbilt, the athletes can claim a pretty legitimate exchange of goods. At places like our beloved University of Florida, however, the divergence between effort and eventual payoff swells to the wildly disproportionate.
Its shadow becomes all too evident during recruiting, when agents of the corporation called college football go out to pitch the logically impossible: an exclusive contract of a good (a university education) unwanted by many of the purchasers in exchange for a fleeting shot at an NFL career attained by a slim percentage of the applicants. In repayment, their truly unique talents get short shrift in the form of denied benefits proportional to their input. In plain terms: athletes on the whole don't get back what they put into their time at a university. Not even close.
That's reason one why recruiting is creepy. It's the beginning of an unequal and exploitative arrangement between athlete (not "student-athlete," for the most part) and university. And the sell from big programs begins with the most illusory claim of all: a shot at the NFL. If you're Rex Grossman, not making it is no big deal; you've got options. Rex Grossmans in college football, though, are rare. A sizeable chunk of college football players come from places where going back to sit on the couch represents a much different and more dire prospect for them.
They can't all be Rex Grossman, who didn't owe the university everything in exchange for the nothing they received in return: a university degree (not guaranteed, of course) and precisely zero share of the profits they generated for the school or, worse yet, the corporate third-party entity running the athletic program. Until they get a share while playing, the power differential will remain grossly unequal between athlete and university. And recruiting will remain the first step in what is an inherently duplicitous arrangement.
(Part Two, which will explain why this is all necessary and still creepy, will follow later today.)