The recent roiling college admissions fraud scandal exposed how the athletic recruiting system at desirable institutions can be manipulated to grant privileged treatment even to students with fabricated athletic achievements.
But for truly gifted young athletes drawn into the cryptic world of college sports recruiting, the pressure to lock up a spot at a top university can arrive as early as the seventh grade. In what has become a common, disquieting tactic in dozens of sports — from soccer to volleyball — skilled, athletic middle-schoolers are pressured by coaches offering full athletic scholarships to commit to attend institutions many years before they will fill out an admissions application.
Sometimes, the offer comes with a take-it-or-leave-it deadline. And because of the pervasive obsession with getting into high-ranking colleges — and better yet, with landing a scholarship that will help cover the cost — anxious athletes and their families eagerly, if sometimes rashly, accept.
“Parents are worried and panicked that those offers are going to disappear,” said Justin Sell, the athletic director at South Dakota State University and a prominent member of N.C.A.A. legislative committees. “There shouldn’t be a rush. No seventh-grader should be faced with that decision.”
Now, a coalition of administrators, coaches, faculty and students have banded together to fight back against such early recruiting, and this month the N.C.A.A. is poised to prohibit early recruiting in most college sports. High-profile sports like football and basketball would be excluded.
A proposal before the 40-member N.C.A.A. Division I Council, if approved by a majority during meetings April 18 and 19, would ban all recruiting contact between coaches and athletes until June 15 of the prospective student’s sophomore year in high school. Official visits to campuses by recruits could not occur before Aug. 1 after their sophomore year. Third parties, including a recruit’s family members and high school or club coaches, would also be prohibited from recruiting-related communications before June 15.
Football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey would be excluded from the new guidelines because of the professional contract opportunities recruits in those sports are sometimes considering in addition to attending college, council members said. College coaches asked for the ability to communicate with the athletes as those options are being weighed.
Karen Weekly, the co-head softball coach at the University of Tennessee, said her brethren reached the breaking point on early recruiting in recent years when sixth graders suddenly began committing to programs in her league, the Southeastern Conference.
“There was no boundary to stop it,” Weekly said. “Ten years ago, we thought sophomores committing was too young. Sixth graders? Enough is enough.”
Kerstin Kimel, the women’s lacrosse coach at Duke University, explained that in the last decade some coaches tried to gain a competitive advantage by hoarding ever younger, promising athletes before rival coaches could discover them. Kimel said the ploy had become more widespread in part because of the mania among parents eager to gain entry to leading institutions.
“Savvy parents are saying, ‘If we’re early to all this recruiting maybe that’s our shot to get into certain places,’” Kimel said.
While there is broad support for establishing early recruiting embargoes, there is, however, disagreement over substantial details within the new recruiting regulations. Two sports, lacrosse and softball, are lobbying to be excluded from the proposed N.C.A.A. legislation because they have already established their own more stringent early recruiting rules. Two years ago, the national lacrosse coaches associations received N.C.A.A.’s approval to prohibit recruiting contact until Sept. 1 of a student’s junior year of high school, or 11 weeks — one summer — later than the date in the N.C.A.A. proposal. With some amendments, softball adopted the lacrosse guidelines last year.
“The Sept. 1 date has kept that summer before the athletes’ junior year calmer and free from recruiting and has led to a more thorough evaluation, including academically, on both sides,” said Mike Murphy, the men’s lacrosse coach at the University of Pennsylvania.
Kimel noted that starting the recruiting contact on June 15 could distract a high school student during final exams and interrupt the conclusion of recruits’ spring sports seasons.
Samantha J. Ekstrand, who acts as legal counsel to the lacrosse and softball coaches associations, said that in a recent poll of softball coaches, 82.5 percent were opposed to rolling back the recruiting start date to June 15.
“A lot of thought went into the Sept. 1 date,” Ekstrand said. “It might not seem a big shift, but it’s a colossal shift.”
The leaders of the national body that represents college athletes insisted that their constituency overwhelmingly endorses a uniform date for the start of recruiting in as many sports as possible, mostly to avoid confusion.
Nicholas Clark, a former football player who is one of two college athletes elected by their peers to serve on the Division I Council, said representatives from every campus in 32 conferences were polled.
“They want us to vote for the proposal,” Clark said.
Blake James, the council chairman and the athletic director at the University of Miami, said he has heard from parents of high school athletes who told him they were eager to contact coaches earlier and preferred the June 15 date.
“Ultimately, I don’t know exactly where we’ll end up on this,” James said. “But it will be a much better place for both youth sports and college sports.”