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Not a Zero-Sum Game

Future of Youth Sports Team
Youth Sports Team / May 19, 2021
Youth Sports
N.I.L. Rules and College Recruiting’s Growing Pains Could Be Terminal for the NCAA

In 2017, 11-year-old soccer player Olivia Moultrie accepted a scholarship offer from the University of North Carolina. The same year, rising 8th-grader Jaheim Oatis received offers to play football at Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Ten-year-old football player Maxwell “Bunchie” Young received an offer from former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, now the coach at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. A quick scroll through Instagram search results for the hashtag #offered indicates that this phenomenon continues apace. While most kids are not committing by age 11, these cases represent the seemingly intractable issue of predatory youth recruitment that is occurring across the NCAA’s big-money sports.

College football and basketball have become a multi-billion dollar industry and everyone is cashing in except the players who are doing the work…. This is a civil rights issue.

US Senator Chris Murphy

Coauthor with Cory Booker and Kamala Harris of the College Athletes’ Bill of Rights

The Younger the Recruit, the Worse the Experience

Recruitment at such a young age is a symptom of the larger disease plaguing youth sports. Receiving offers and committing to colleges while attending middle school, kids are being professionalized before they take 8th-grade American history.

That’s not to say that the NCAA isn’t aware of the problem. College coaches routinely lament the negative effects of early recruiting—while maintaining that it’s the only way to keep up with their ruthless competitors. A study conducted by the NCAA showed that the younger athletes are recruited, the more likely they are to report a negative recruiting experience. Scholarship terms and coaches often change before the young athlete actually enrolls at the university they committed to, leading to broken commitments, high transfer rates and emotional stress.

Accordingly, in 2019, the NCAA followed the lead of its lacrosse and softball programs and passed a rule that prevents coaches in most sports from conducting recruiting conversations with athletes before their junior year of high school. But, tellingly, this new rule provided a crucial loophole for football, baseball and basketball—the main revenue-generating sports—allowing them to continue business as usual via “verbal offers” coaches can extend to players without limits on age.

  • $5,375,000

    Ohio State football coach Ryan Day’s 2020 salary

  • $0

    OSU player compensation

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The NBA G League Takes on the NCAA

Looming competitive threats may be the reason the NCAA held on to the ability to recruit grade school athletes in major sports. The emergence of the NBA’s G League has significant ramifications for the future of youth recruitment. In April 2020, five-star high school basketball recruits Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd and Daishen Nix all opted for the G League instead of the traditional NCAA pathway. Todd decommitted from Michigan and Nix from UCLA to join Green, signing $500,000 contracts to play in the G League, opening up a new avenue of player development for NBA prospects.

Although the NCAA recently outlined measures allowing athletes to earn money from commercial use of their names, images and likenesses, a G League salary will be irresistible to many elite high school athletes, effectively replacing the farcical “one-and-done” pattern (turning pro after freshman year) that is already undermining NCAA basketball.

As other pro leagues start to follow suit, the G League model will give rise to European-style youth sport academies in football and other sports. In the short term, the NCAA, already rocked to its financial foundations by COVID-19’s disruption of 2020’s March Madness basketball tournament and the college football season, could even ramp up its efforts to secure premier amateur talent for colleges by loosening recruiting restrictions. Sixth-grade commitments and corruption scandals could surge.

When 48% of recruited women’s basketball players are first contacted by a college coach.

R.I.P., Earlier Recruiting

Eventually the NCAA will be forced to accept the reality that elite athletes will choose professional options instead of playing a symbolic year or three of collegiate athletics. In recognizing this new trend, the NCAA will have a golden opportunity to morph from being a professional athlete production organization back to its stated mission “to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.”

As broadcast contracts follow the moneymaking talent away from college campuses, universities will return focus to their educational missions, eliminating one driver of the toxic elitism undermining the potential of youth sports.

The Future Is Already Here Dep’t

Starting with its 2018–19 season, Australia’s National Basketball League began a Next Stars program that offers an alternative pathway for players looking to eventually step into the NBA while making some money along the way. Several high-profile players such as LaMelo Ball and R. J. Hampton took advantage of the program and became high picks in the 2020 NBA Draft.

Not to be outdone, the NBA G League stepped up its recruiting game in the summer of 2020, ignoring a growing chorus of complaints from top-tier college coaches and handing out big contracts to a new crop of top high school players including international phenoms like Princepal Singh (6’10” forward from Punjab, India), Jonathan Kuminga (6’8″ forward from the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Kai Sotto (7’2″ center from the Philippines).

Dystopia 2035

Student stress from early recruiting mounted when the NCAA failed to establish strong new rules to regulate coach–athlete communications for revenue-generating sports. In fact, social media and digital recruiting and ranking platforms like Hudl, paired with the rising prominence of the NBA G League and a slew of similar new remunerative sports pathways, exacerbated the early-professionalism problem. When the NCAA itself began to compensate athletes in moneymaking sports, parents’ college obsession went off the charts, while the push to recruit ever-younger athletes created a race to the bottom, eventually tanking overall performance levels. Coaches made bad bets on the top-ranked 6th-grade athletes in their sport, and rates of transfers skyrocketed, decimating teams and making it impossible to build multiyear programs. When performance levels fell, TV ratings bottomed out, and traditional sports became dinosaurs.

Utopia 2035

As the backlash against the recruitment of increasingly younger athletes grew, the moneymaking NCAA sports finally followed the lead of lacrosse and other non-revenue-generating sports, restricting coach-player contact to September 1 of junior year of high school. As a result, young athletes felt less pressure to specialize in one sport and to travel incessantly to get noticed by college coaches, leaving them two to three more years to develop academic foundations and extracurricular interests. Injuries from overtraining in a single sport plummeted, and the one-and-done athlete became a rarity, enabling even top college athletes to fully participate in educational pursuits, making them better equipped to handle life after college.

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