Friday, January 28, 2005

The Gag Order | by Teds

David Nelson, a wide receiver recruit Notre Dame had been pursuing in the current campaign, cast his fate with the Florida Gators during a visit to Gainesville last weekend. As a highly-ranked prospect who had been committed to former ND coach Tyrone Willingham prior to his dismissal, Nelson had been the source of some consternation among Irish fans.

(The quicker ones among you may notice that I mentioned Willingham specifically in association with Nelson, not the University of Notre Dame as a whole. There's a reason for that.)

It's not unprecedented for a prep prospect to change his commitment midstream after a coach has been replaced. Nor is it all that unusual for a high school player to sign on with the coaching staff who gives him the most and best attention, as Nelson admitted regarding his pledge to Urban Meyer and the Gators. Most ND fans didn't hold it against fellow ex-Willingham commit Lawrence Wilson when his interest in the Irish was rekindled after seven Notre Dame assistants dropped by to visit at his Akron-area school and home recently. Whether we openly admit it or not, most followers realize that attention in one form or another pays when it comes to recruiting.

At the same time, the internet age has transformed recruiting into big business and made household names of kids who haven't yet picked out prom tuxedos. Recruiting services regularly hound these young men for scraps of new information that might provide some insight as to their college destination for the thousands of sick twists (yo!) who consider such things worth obsessing over. From the mouths of babes...come what is often accepted as gospel nowadays.

One of the problems with that is the fact that the NCAA does not allow college coaches to discuss recruits by name during the process. So although the players in question can and often do provide gory, blow-by-blow accounts of their dealings with different suitors which are naturally subjective and occassionally shy on certain details, there's no outlet for a counterpoint from coaches and schools on the other end of the equation. As a result, what we're left with -- at least on the record -- is a one-sided conversation, or, if you prefer, "He said, [inaudible]".

So when Nelson declares, "For my dad to be comfortable sending me somewhere, he needed to be able to look a head coach in the eyes", there's a decent chance that he's sincere in his remarks. But there's also the possibility that Nelson is merely trolling for an excuse, something concrete to tell the reporters that will make his change of heart more understandable and palatable.

Admittedly possessing no special insight, I suspect that if Weis had the opportunity to visit with Nelson and his family face to face, the meeting would have done nothing more than forced the player to come up with a different and more outrageous reason to sign his letter of intent with a different school. Maybe something along the lines of: "My folks really needed to see Coach Weis don the San Diego Chicken mascot costume and do the Cabbage Patch to feel comfortable about his intentions and the security of my athletic and scholastic future".

(Then again, who knows? I only used this as an example because it's how I arrange most of my dates. Although that Chicken head can get a bit stuffy, so truth be told, I allow some of the more fetching girls to do their business without it. But I digress.)

Whatever the case, the NCAA's gag order gives these 16-18 year-old kids the simultaneous freedom and burden of shouldering the load as the designated mouthpiece in documenting the various relationships they develop with college coaching staffs, only one of which will ultimately come to fruition. Certainly, a recruit could just plead the fifth, but a "no comment" will often accomplish little more than stoking the fires of curiousity and leading to further badgering of the witness.

To be clear, I'm not looking for some sort of change in the restriction placed on these schools and their employees with respect to discussion of prospective players by name. As with any business which interviews candidates for employ and turns down some while also being rejected by others, it's poor form to openly discuss the details of the process. What I would ask is that those who follow the recruiting game closely and judge schools and coaches based on their success or failure in luring prized prospects to sign on their dotted line might take the postmortem comments of said prospects with a grain of salt.

Some will appear to change their priorities as the process unfolds, while others will completely fabricate reasons for choosing one school or declining the advances of another. Many will say that education matters but few will mean it, and certain ones who purportedly consider quality schooling a factor will make the kind of decision that leaves observers wondering if they actually grasp the definition of the term. Some will not be completely forthright about the schools that sincerely pursued them, and a few might even declare a "choice" of, say, BC when other options didn't actually exist. And all will lie like dogs about their height, weight and 40-yard dash times.

But this has all become an accepted part of the dance. We come to expect a certain amount of half-truths and gorilla dust. These teenaged kids have been all but strapped to a television camera, microphone or journalist's keyboard, and it's a difficult age for even the most well-adjusted among them to handle that sort of exposure with winning grace and brutal honesty. Cripes, it's hard enough for people twice that age.

You don't have to hate the game, but recognize the player for the possibility that his best interests might not neatly align with the unvarnished truth.