Sunshine Only Solution for SEC Oversigning Problem

vanderbilt scholarship for walk-onI am generally not a fan of the idea that sunshine and transparency is the universal disinfectant, especially when it comes to college athletics. There are too many justifications, rationalizations, and rose-colored glasses to go around. Simply requiring that athletic departments air dirty laundry works selectively at best, rarely at worst.

But the SEC is rapidly running out of options when it comes to the perception of its football teams as oversigners. Despite the fact that the SEC has been at the forefront in curbing some roster management practices, their football programs are still tagged with the scarlet letter. This was a fact lamented by Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin:

“I think it’s really hard for people on the outside to talk about,” Franklin said. “I think it interesting to hear what people are saying about this or that school that signed over. I don’t understand how anybody knows that.”

As much progress as the SEC has made on this issue, this area lags behind. This has been the almost unanimous refrain from SEC coaches. Outsiders do not know the numbers, therefore they should not discuss oversigning. Franklin went further:

“So my point is, I don’t know how anybody would be able to know actually who was on the roster and who isn’t based on scholarships. You could make a guess-estimate, but only the people inside the program and that coach knows exactly how many people are returning on scholarship, and what guys are available.”

Aside from being an example of why the SEC gets the brunt of the criticism, Franklin also hinted at a major problem that both sides of the oversigning debate have: making the debate about oversigning. The problem with oversigning is not whether or by how much a team is projected to exceed 25 initial counters and 85 overall scholarships. The problem is the roster management, the individual decisions that ultimately keep the team within the limits when camp opens in August.

A team being oversigned casts a cloud on those decisions. It creates an additional concern that is, at best, very difficult for a coach to push out of their mind when making decisions on retaining players. It also makes it easier for outsiders to draw a connection between an incoming recruit and the less talented player who had to make room for him.

Franklin also exaggerates the impact and opacity of some legitimate, noncontroversial methods that help a team stay within scholarship limits:

“I obviously think with the numbers that people are signing, sometimes you look at and say ‘How is that possible?’ And you find out that they were able to bring 10 or 15 guys in at midyear with (early high school graduation), or guys are leaving early for the NFL or whatever it is.”

For a team to bring in 10–15 players at midyear and not use any of their 25 initial counters for the following year, the team would need to have 10–15 initial counters remaining for the current year. Not to mention that they would need 10–15 overall scholarships available, either through not using them during the fall or replacing midyear graduates.

If an outsider like a watchdog or reporter ever knows the real initial counter number, he or she can work from that point forward and keep an eye on the number, because the school inevitably announces every initial scholarship it awards. Same with most early departures, which are leaked, announced, or can be inferred by comparing one roster to a previous one.

This is why the resistance to releasing scholarship numbers, especially using FERPA as a justification, seems so hard to swallow. Schools give the public enough information about individual players to get them in the ballpark for the team. An anonymous count would have no more privacy implications that announcing NLI signees, and would dispel any doubt about the school’s scholarship situation. It is no surprise the assumption then is that schools have something to hide in that overall count.

Aside from satisfying our morbid curiosity, what would releasing scholarship numbers do for athletes? Mostly it would make the timing of roster management moves more favorable to the athlete. Imagine a scenario where a school was obliged to release its scholarship numbers according to the following schedule:

  • September: Overall and initial counters for the current year
  • January: Overall and initial counters for the current and following year
  • March: Overall and initial counters for the following year

That tells you how many spare scholarships the school has when the season starts, the impact of midyear enrollees on the numbers, and ultimately whether a school is oversigned after the bulk of the regular signings are completed.

Because the focus of roster management criticism is on schools who are oversigned following the regular signing period, schools would be motivated to clear as much space as possible prior to signing day, ideally prior to January enrollment. This expands the range of options for a student-athlete whose scholarship is in jeopardy. They can look to transfer before signing day, instead of being forced to choose between losing their scholarship and ending their football career for medical reasons.

That does not answer the real debate in roster management: to what degree an athlete’s athletic ability should dictate how long a school supports his education. But it provides a much better environment for that debate to take place. If coaches continue to resist providing more information, they risk that environment turning completely against them. And if that happens, helping people understand their scholarship numbers will seem like a tiny price to have paid.