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Verbal Commitments Are Not Going Anywhere Soon

verbal commitmentJoey Knight of the Tampa Bay Times:

Time to abolish “commitment” from the recruiting vernacular. If society can rid itself of AstroTurf, the BCS and The T.O. Show, surely it can wean itself off a word simply not compatible with big-time recruiting in its current form.

That goes for its preposterous spin-offs as well. No more “soft commitments” or kids claiming they are “80 percent committed” to a school. Quick, name one coach in America — any sport, any level — content to have an athlete who is 80 percent committed.

The current system makes no sense when you hear the words used. A verbal commitment is non-binding, broken at will by either party. A letter of intent is a binding commitment with big consequences for the prospect if it is broken. And being 80% committed is not really committed at all.

But the word is not going away. Prospects will continue to announce their verbal commitments. The recruiting media would have to then twist what the prospect actually said (“I am verbally committing to [insert university]”) to what that actually means in today’s landscape (“At the moment, [insert university] is my leader”).

Everyone involved will rebel against that. Prospects will not break that news to an outlet that basically calls them liars. Coaches will protest that outlets, particularly those focused on one institution, are harming their recruiting efforts. Fans will stop reading or subscribing to one publication if another continues to insist that those recruits are theirs.

So vernacular changes are unlikely unless the prospects themselves stop committing to institutions until they are actually ready to commit. But Knight has another idea from Plant High School coach Robert Weiner:

Weiner has a more radical idea: no signing day at all. Simply allow a kid to sign his national letter of intent — which officially binds him to that school — the day he commits with a stipulation the letter can be voided if the coach leaves the school (by his or the school’s choice).

“That would end all of that,” said Weiner, who has had only one player decommit during his decade at Plant. “That would make kids really value their decision-making process more. That would make colleges value their decision-making process more when they offer someone.”

That sounds nice in theory but practice suggests a number of problems.

First of all, if no signing day truly means no signing day, then remember that you could have eighth graders signing NLIs. At best those would mostly be meaningless since the odds that a coach is still at the same school four or five years later are fairly low, especially outside of the top programs. At worst, you would have prospects and institutions who can no longer walk away if things are not working out, they would instead have to unwind a binding, written commitment. Great for the prospect in some cases, but more likely to end with a bitter fight or a transfer.

Second, the prospect is not the only one involved in the decision making process. Parents, high school and club coaches, and the dreaded “third parties” are putting pressure on prospects to accept or wait, take this offer or that offer. Parents in particular if there was no signing day. As a general rule, a parent of a recruit wants as much security as soon as possible. You are asking a teenager, maybe as young as 14 or 15, to fight his parents on whether he should sign a scholarship that (according to the coach at the very least) guarantees his college education is paid for.

Finally, if the problem of verbal commitments that are not actually commitments is driven in part by the attention paid by fans and the media and by pressure on coaches who want to wrap up classes as early as possible, allowing prospects to sign NLIs whenever they feel ready does nothing to combat those forces. It simply raises the stakes for a prospect who makes a mistake. On the basketball side, Devonte Graham made a mistake by signing an NLI with Appalachian State in November of his senior year of high school. I doubt the quality of decisions will go up by allowing prospects to make decisions with equally high consequences much earlier, even before activities like official visits and home visits by coaches are allowed.

One alternative would be to allow prospects to sign financial aid agreements which bind the institution but not the player at any time. That might cut down on offers from coaches, meaning there would be nothing for a prospect to accept, which is the basis for most verbal commitments. But on the other hand, coaches might be pressured to sign prospects just to remain in the hunt, then figure out how to make the numbers work later. Plus institutions are already rebelling against letting any prospects sign multiple scholarship agreements.

Another idea would be to put some teeth behind a verbal commitment with a rule preventing coaches from contact prospects while they are committed to another institution. But that requires maintaining a database of who is committed to which institution, hoping coaches check that database before any contact with a prospect, and would still be as hard to enforce as the current rules against contacting enrolled student-athletes.

If the biggest problem with verbal commitments is that the wrong word is being used, it is so far down the list of problems facing college athletics as to be meaningless. The current system for college football prospects is fairly good, preserving much of their freedom until the coaching carousel has spun to a stop. When the biggest complaints are from writers who want prospects to use a different word and coaches who complain they have to recruit all the way until February (when in reality they have to “recruit” many athletes to stay throughout their career), that is a good indication there are bigger fish to fry.


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