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.
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.