When Will the NCAA Act to Slow Down Early Recruiting?

By Kim Simons Tortolani, Former Head Coach, USA Under-19 National Team and Georgetown University

I have always been a bit wary of the NCAA. As a former college athlete, I never sensed that the NCAA’s claim of “prioritizing academics, well-being and fairness…” applied to my teammates or me. During my time as a Division I head lacrosse coach and member of the NCAA Division I lacrosse committee, I was often frustrated with the organization’s bureaucracy, hypocrisy, and apparent apathy towards a women’s non-revenue, non-Olympic sport. As a parent, when I recently heard the news of 14 year-olds committing to college, I again question the mission and priorities of the institution that seems uninterested or unwilling to address the current trend of recruiting middle school kids.

Photo credit: US Lacrosse/John Strohsacker.
              Photo credit: US Lacrosse/John Strohsacker

As a high school and college coach for over two decades, I witnessed first-hand how the practice of early recruiting transformed our sport. Don’t get me wrong, recruiting has never been a pretty or fair endeavor, and parents and coaches have often behaved badly. With that said, the current trend to recruit and commit prospective student-athletes before they matriculate high school or reach puberty is outrageous and detrimental to our sport. The accelerated recruiting timeline has far-reaching effects: forcing early specialization in one sport, encouraging the growing practice of repeating an academic year in hopes of gaining an athletic advantage, promoting participation on club and travel teams at a younger age, and playing year-round lacrosse. And it is well documented that this new reality in youth lacrosse is dramatically increasing the incidents of burnout and injury.

In my opinion, and the opinion of many college coaches, athletic administrators, and parents, the responsibility to reverse this trend lies with the NCAA. As the governing body of college athletics, the NCAA is the only group that has the power to make national rules. Over the past year and a half, the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association (IWLCA) has compiled data, completed surveys, and collected documents in an effort to propose new legislation that would slow down the recruiting timeline. When presented to the Division I women’s lacrosse coaches, 85% of that group voted in favor of the proposal that would prohibit any direct recruiting contact with prospects before September 1 of their junior year in high school. The support for this common-sense legislation has been overwhelming at all levels, however, the NCAA has been slow to support this change, and to date, has not acted.

The NCAA leadership has claimed that the legislation is “unenforceable” and they don’t want to limit a prospect’s opportunities to gather information on her own (reality translation: call coaches to talk about scholarship offers). One has to wonder why an institution that proudly advertises the motto, “Prioritizing academics, well-being and fairness,” can make such an argument. Those of us familiar with the nearly 500-page NCAA rulebook, know that virtually none of the rules are truly enforceable because they require self-regulation and self-reporting by coaches and universities. Not allowing prospects to call coaches prior to junior year does not limit options, but instead allows student-athletes the opportunity to make a more educated, timely, and age-appropriate decision.

In a recent ad campaign aired throughout the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament (a tournament which helps the NCAA earn billions in annual revenue from TV, advertising and sponsorship revenue), a voiceover by Billie Jean King is heard professing:

This is why we love sports. It’s in the way they play, free from the pressures and all the money talk. Playing for simply the love of the game. Where everyone has a shot at their definition of success, on and off the field. This is what we love about sport and what we can still love about college sports.”

The hypocrisy of this message was screaming through the commercial. Choosing the right college is arguably one of the most important decisions in a young person’s life, yet the early recruiting trend is overwhelming and paralyzing these kids and families. Currently, 14 and 15 year-old prospects, who should be enjoying their athletic experiences “simply for the love of the game,” are worrying about college admissions exams, the interest level of coaches, and the time limit on scholarship offers. And let’s not forget the academic and athletic “late bloomer,” who loses confidence and desire to play because the current timeline sends the message that they aren’t good enough, athletic enough, big enough or smart enough. And in the midst of all this irrationality, what is the NCAA doing?

The lacrosse recruiting process is a broken system that fails kids and their families. If the NCAA was truly committed to “academics, well-being and fairness,” it would not only accept the proposed recruiting legislation set forth by the IWLCA, it would do so enthusiastically, publicly and quickly. Now is the time to act, before another cycle of the insanity starts all over again. It is my hope, and the hope of many involved with the sport, that the time has finally come for the NCAA to step up and restore some sanity to the sport we love.

 

Please visit the IWLCA’s Early Recruiting Information Page, which includes a link to sign the petition to indicate your support for the legislative proposal the NCAA is currently reviewing.

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28 thoughts on “When Will the NCAA Act to Slow Down Early Recruiting?

  1. Great article, and I completely agree with your comments about the risks to the student-athlete in regards to early recruiting. However, your column fails to mention one particular aspect as to why early recruiting even exists: Tuition Inflation.

    It costs a king’s ransom to send a child to college–and this is only for an undergraduate degree. If I, as a parent, have the ability to provide all the tools necessary for exposure (year-round play, club teams, play in multi-state tournaments, etc) to my U13 or even U11 child and put them in the best position possible to receive a commitment from a University (even at a young age), then so be it. My child can commit and form a better path to completing AP classes or fulfilling an IB curriculum in high school, this potentially finishing an undergraduate degree early and playing in their senior year while receiving possible graduate school funding.

    Lacrosse parents are known to plan and play the recruiting game as a chess match, thus permitting (and asking for) early recruiting. I suggest you take a step back as to what is good for the game and look at the bigger picture. Although, I would argue that early recruiting IS better for the game because it causes kids to play early and practice often.

    Thank you for all you do for the sport!! It is truly appreciated by all of us.

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    1. I think you highlight some of the very challenges Coach Tortolani touches on in her post. Despite all the warnings from both experienced coaches and medical professionals on the negative impact of single sport concentration from an early age, there are those parents who are more than willing to take on that risk for their children. Early recruiting serves no real benefit for any prospective student athlete. It is seldom beneficial to reduce one’s options early in the process of any major decision. To attempt to understand the myriad of complex parameters that go into choosing the best college education option for any student at the ripe old age of twelve or thirteen seems absolutely ludicrous.
      Early recruiting is beneficially however for the ever expanding money machine that has rapidly developed in and around the sport of lacrosse. Early exposure to college coaches is the primary selling point, one that is very difficult for many parents to resist. It is this pay for play environment of club teams and tournaments that has driven the changes to the sport and to the college recruiting process that we now see. It is certainly arguable that this money driven, specialize early and practice often concept, characterized by the overriding of self interest of the player has improved individual skills while do little for the quality of the game.
      The modern NCAA has become little more than an arbiter and distributer of the financial rewards of college sports. It is dominated by large universities that find it very difficult to ignore this tremendous revenue potential. If the organization is to regain some educational relevance, there are few better opportunities than this. There are many objective sources for information on colleges for young prospective student athletes that do not include coaches. The start of junior year provides more than enough time to investigate the coaching staff and gage interest for all parties involved. These potential student athletes need the freedom to be able to make the best choice possible for them and their future free of the many competing self interests swirling around college lacrosse today.

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  2. Hi Kim,
    My 11 year old daughter plays Lax, Field hockey, soccer and a mean Tuba. She does do some travel club teams because she likes it and her friends play as well. They may not be the best, but they are having a fun time together. With that said, my question is the following;

    My kid and I like to visit local and out of town college games. I like to call or email the coaches before we come so she can meet players/coaches and look at the facilities of a Ncaa school. My thought process is that if she sees many of the colleges, it makes the goal of attending a college of her choice that much more attainable. I am not shopping my kid around for scholarship money, I just want her to see how much fun the girls are having at the sport they love and meet the coaches that enjoy coaching young student/athletes.

    At her age, she has been to 11 different schools to catch a game and has met about 7 coaches and too many players to count. The message she has received from almost all was, “How are your Grades?” The best thing that was said, was “Take care of your grades, so you don’t worry about them on the field”

    OK here is the question, Is it wrong of me to take my kid to see the college games and interact with coaches/athletes?

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    1. As a teacher/coach/parent, I would say, “Definitely not!” Getting your child thinking about college is a great motivator, and when those college coaches start off by asking about academics, it helps keep that in perspective. In a lot of ways, I think meeting lots of coaches on your own terms is great. Then if recruiters start approaching, the kids aren’t all starry-eyed and ready to jump at the first coach that expresses interest. They also get a chance to see how the coaches interact with their players when they are not necessarily on their best behavior for recruits. I’m so glad the coaches are putting academics first in your conversations. The early recruiting has turned into a necessity for coaches who want to compete, because everybody else is doing it, but I don’t think the coaches are the villains in the scenario. The NCAA needs to reign it in so that the coaches don’t feel forced to go after children in order to compete.

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      1. Tom,
        Thank you for your response. You wrote exactly what I was thinking for my kid. Her dream is to play goalie for PSU but they are really good. I take her to local games from DIII and DII as well. I want her to understand that she can go to any college she wants if she balances academics and sport. But she is graduating college, she has no choice in that. 🙂

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  3. Great article that everyone needs to be taken into consideration. Should hit home even more that it’s coming from a head coach of a successful team.

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  4. And when all is said and done will the coaches stand behind the young women they recruited and come clean after all their lies? Interesting that the same coaches voicing opinion against this are the very same who have perpetuated this model and kick their recruits to the curb.

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  5. Great article Kim- I am wondering the same- is it just lacrosse. As I remember many many years ago during the process a coach couldn’t contact me till junior year for field hockey . Has this changed for all sports?

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    1. Coaches cannot contact prospects until junior year – that is still true. However, prospects/parents can initiate contact before then. The proposal we submitted would close this loophole and delay ALL contact until September 1 of the junior year.

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  6. I was a college soccer coach for 10 years and the same issue is happening in with soccer for the top programs in the country. Check out this recent blog post I have written about Finding Your College Experience Trifecta.

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  7. It’s insane this is even a debate. Early recruiting and club level sports below middle school are ruining youth sports. It’s more than ironic that even though we “won” the Cold War, we’ve become East Germany when it comes to youth sports – tracking kids below 10, year round sports, etc. Get a life people

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  8. Hi Kim,
    It’s Howdie Goodwin. Hope you and your family are doing great. Your article got forwarded to me on Facebook and your message is spot on. My daughter is 10, loves lax, and I’m amazed by this whole dynamic. Great job and thank you.
    Best,
    H

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  9. The time has come to stop this “unhealthy” early recruiting nightmare! Having been a College Coach for 20 years and now a high school coach for the last 15 years, the stress and anxiety that early recruiting brings upon the student-athlete and parents is overwhelming. Example – A parent asks me as the coach, I need “Susie” miss the game on Saturday because her club is playing in a tournament and the college coach, where she wants to commit early, said she would be there to watch her. “Susie” is in 9th grade and her parents want her to miss a high school game for possible future early commitment!!!!
    Can one imagine the stress on the parents to ask and to decide what is best for their little “Susie”?
    Can one imagine the stress on “Susie” to tryout as a 14 year old for your opportunity to go to College?

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  10. Excellent article. Eloquently written by someone who has street cred. The junior year rule should be strictly enforced. H.S. Freshman should not be committing to college. It is detrimental to their academic and social development. Time for NCAA to do their job and protect the KIDS!

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  11. Gymnastics coaches are “verballing” 7th graders ….and when they hit puberty in high school and aren’t the same “body type” ( read: no bobs or hips) that was recruited as a 12 year old, the schools dump them….how nice of NCAA gymnastics..

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  12. Great article I remember the stresses as a parent when my daughter was being recruited several years ago for softball. I guess I’m a little confused about the article saying that the early recruiting causes more stress on the parent & the child athlete however, the “no contact from coaches until their junior year” still applies. Basically, the parent or the athlete has to initiate the very stresses they are talking about wanting to avoid? I totally agree with several other points such as the benefits of waiting until the athlete can make a more mature decision as well as the point of “late bloomers”. My daughter didn’t even start playing softball until she was 12 and that was slow pitch for campfire girls back then. We didn’t even know about fast pitch until she tried out for the team as a freshman. She fell in love and totally excelled under some “real coaching”. We had learned enough through that year about travel teams & again she tried out for a pretty competitive team in Orange County & again made the team. She was fresh & not all burned out like some that had been playing for years. She was a starter on Varsity for a very competitive High School team by her sophomore year. She made All American as a Senior. All the while continuing to play travel ball because not only was the competition so great it made her want to excel even more but that really is the only place for coaches to get a good look at them in action. Division 1 Coaches are not to likely to come to a high school game when they are in season with their own teams. She ended up being recruited to a highly respected program in Lafayette LA with a SUPER Coach and was given a 5 year full ride scholarship. Again she excelled worked into the #4 batting position as a left handed hitter and was breaking school records. She was a 3 time college All American (she got a really bad flu her sophomore year that caused her to lose like 13 lbs and weakened her horribly). Even with all that she still broke some of her own school records as well as others that year. She went to Fresno and tried out with the Olympic team (that was fun playing with all the greats). She was recruited by the Silver Bullets but she turned it down as it would have nullified her 5th year scholarship if she played for money. I did not say all of this to brag even though I am very proud of her accolades which were many but to show that YES, YES, YES there are late bloomers or as in her case late starters to the game and NO you do not have to be recruited by 13 or your chances of a scholarship are out the window. I feel really blessed that her experiences with the sport were positive ones on and off the field. Picking a great Coach is crucial as well because lets face it, when our girls go that far away from home right out of high school the Coach stands in for the parent as well as being a Coach and I couldn’t have been happier with hers. I hope something I said might make it a tad easier for someone. Good Luck Ladies.

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  13. Kim, let’s say your daughter is interested in playing for USC. If you go to Laxpower you will see that there are currently 8 sophomores (2018) who are committed to USC right now. Maryland, 8. Stanford, 8. and so on. Many schools are at the point where they are essentially done recruiting by a girl’s sophomore year and in a year or two from now, it may be freshmen year. Sure, you can avoid the stress by holding off contacting the coaches until junior year but in a huge number of cases the only response you will receive upon contact is “we’re done”.

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  14. Here is a major question I have to ask IWCLA. These are the same exact rules for Football, Basketball, Baseball, etc. Why is it Lacrosse, Softball and Soccer the one’s having the major issues. It’s all about the $$$, the Club organizations make $$$, the College Coaches make $$$$. I wonder what percentage of students who commit early get any $$$ while in college. Unless you play Football or Basketball, you are not going to get a full ride and with 12 or 12.6 scholarships for teams of 30 and more, the actual help in tuition is very low (especially going to Private or Out of State). Stop blaming the NCAA because to my best knowledge, the rule is universal. It’s up to the College Coaches to stop the madness. NCAA only cares about their bottom budget. The Club organization worries about their bottom budget, they get students to play for them based on getting their players recruited and recruited early. Waiting on the NCAA is worthless because they are a multi-billion dollar industry and will not change. Parents who have the $$$$ to put their kids in Clubs are willing to do whatever it takes. For the kids, if you are recruited or not recruited is a way to be treated differently in the 9th / 10th grade. In the Lacrosse world, we have to stop lying to ourselves, you see the Under Armour All American games, how many of those kids are All Americans after 4 years, how many actually still play Lacrosse after 4 years. If there will be any changes, the College coaches will need to make those changes. The problem is that no coach will do that because if they don’t get the best young talent and their teams don’t win, they get fired. Even if the NCAA would put a rule in effect, it doesn’t stop verbals or early recruitment because now the Club coaches are the ones who will do it for them.
    Remove Club coaches from the Lacrosse tournaments and the only time a coach can see a player is at a local camp or at specific recruiting camps that only has rising Juniors and rising Seniors. As long as you have the promise of a College coach at a 8th graders game at a tournament, the early recruiting will continue.

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  15. I have a very athletic 2 year old who I’m certain is going to be an unbelievably amazing lacrosse player. It’s important to her mother and me that she gets a full ride for lacrosse at a prestigious school like Northwestern or Stanford. Should we contact the coaches now, or wait ’til she’s in kindergarten?

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