Oversigning Is Legal, but Is it Wrong?
Jimmy Threestar is a tremendous football player, maybe the best his tiny South Popcorn High School has ever produced. Young Jimmy ran for 8.2 zillion yards against that top-line tiny-school competition as a junior, threw back six Red Bulls mere minutes before clocking a hand-timed 4.19 40-yard dash (never mind that 35 mph tailwind or that the 40 yards might have actually been 35 ...) and magically became a last-minute 28th signee by Powerful State U. and their Napoleonic coach who owns two national title rings and more enemies than Christina Aguilera at a Francis Scott Key rally.
Young Jimmy Threestar, naturally, is elated. Before his 8.2 zillion-yard season and hand-timed 4.19 40, the closest he could come to being noticed by coach Napoleon and Powerful State would be if he jumped the fence at 149,000-seat Legend-Immortal Stadium and started doing push-ups at midfield during a game.
And now? Heck, he is just happy to be along for the ride -- literally.
Come fall, Jimmy Threestar reports to camp 35 pounds heavier than listed on EagleScout.com and a solid 5 seconds slower than his ArchRivals.net proclamations. He is eggshell-fragile when even blinked at by defenders, is doughy where he should be ripped, and quickly becomes scout team cannon-fodder for the real deals that the coach Napoleon correctly guessed on during the stunted recruiting season.
The following spring, coach Napoleon has some tough choices to make. It seems Powerful State has been eyeballing some monster left tackles and some crazy-quick human cruise missiles dressed up as linebackers -- but can't quite seem to fit them all into the 85-man scholarship limit.
Coach Napoleon, and Powerful State U., are now a couple players over.
Tough decisions must be made.
After all, isn't it coach Napoleon's job to win football games and bring glory to the beloved Powerful State? Hasn't Powerful State's president -- who has more advanced degrees on his mahogany wall than coach Napoleon has rings -- told him flat out that on-field success equal a higher national profile for the U. to recruit top-flight educators and students?
So coach Napoleon and young Jimmy Threestar have the first of a couple talks the coach has scheduled with Threestar's underachieving teammates.
"Let's find you a better alternative, Jimmy, because riding our bench and not even sniffing the dress roster doesn't help you or us," coach Napoleon says. "Let me place a call to a comrade of mine, one who can develop you more as a player and get you some turf time. Does that sound ok to you?"
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the current hot-button issue of "oversigning."
There are two distinct schools of thought when it comes to allowing a student-athlete to sign a national letter-of-intent to a university. The first, which was adopted by the Big Ten Conference 50-plus years ago and is the principal argument of SEC-bashing sites like oversigning.com, is this: 85 is the number -- lock, stock and barrel. You sign how many players equal the available scholarships, and school should never, ever turn its back on Jimmy Threestar, no matter how little he eventually produces for the program.
The other school of thought is this: College football is a business, and much like in life itself, Jimmy Threestar is Powerful State U's weakest link. The paperwork he signed (and would keep signing each year if he stayed on scholarship) would specifically say that Powerful State is offering him a one-year renewable Grant-In-Aid. And if Threestar ends up being hand-drawn a map to the nearest door in favor of the game-changing player out there, well, c'est la vie.
Which one is the correct stance? Well, it depends on your point of view, and your opinion (and Powerful State U's opinion) of ethics and responsibility toward even the slowest, clumsiest and hungriest of recruiting busts.
If you are a Big Ten school and abide by the conference rule set forth in 1954, at no point can you offer more scholarships to players than you have available to give. Simple math: 85 scholarships in 2010 minus 16 graduates/players with no more eligibility/NFL early entrants = 16 available scholarships to recruit with.
Now, that is simple math. It doesn't take into account career-ending injuries during spring or fall workouts, players getting into trouble with the law/failing drug tests/random nefariousness or the simple premise of a fifth-string QB saying "I might just transfer to a D-2 school to get some playing time."
If you are Nick Saban and Alabama, who currently sit 10 scholarships over the 85-person limit you have to get to by August, you somehow devise am attrition strategy (one, in Saban's case, you bristle at when asked about by the media) that combines known injuries, transfers like the one hypothesized in the Jimmy Threestar example and, trouble with the law, players quitting, etc., to get to the magic number.
Saban's take, via National Signing Day media diatribe, is this:
" ... We have never gotten rid of a player because of his physical ability," he ranted. "Any player that has left this program prematurely has created his own exit route. He's created his own conditions for leaving, if that makes sense. Whether they are academic in terms of not doing what he needed to do academically, whether it is some violation of team or school policy, some of those things we are not allowed to talk about."
And now, for an opposing view, courtesy of University of Florida president Bernie Machen:
"The universities, with full knowledge of what they are doing, extend more athletic scholarships than they have," Machen said in an open letter published by SI.com that also addressed "grayshirting", the practice of delaying a player's admission until January to put off the scholarship until after the football season.
"These schools play roulette with the lives of talented young people. If they run out of scholarships, too bad. The letter-of-intent signed by the university the previous February is voided. Technically, it's legal to do this. Morally, it is reprehensible."
Based on the simple math available to us (which Saban and Alabama oh-so-helpfully won't confirm or deny), Alabama currently sits 10 players over the limit of 85 it must get to by August. The Crimson Tide was presumably at 84 scholarships at season's end and saw 12 departures via seniors/NFL/transfer -- thus having 13 scholarships "to give" entering National Signing Day. Saban and Alabama then went and signed 23 players (with one more still potentially yet to decide ... ) -- putting the Tide in the Oversigning Hall Of Fame/Shame by 10 warm bodies.
Now, is Saban the personification of evil if, by some calculation performed inside his office and nowhere else, Alabama magically loses 10 Jimmy Threestars between now and fall camp?
Or is Nick Saban, along with Houston Nutt at Ole Miss (according to oversigning.com is a staggering 14 over), Lane Kiffin at Southern Cal (supposedly 10 over the limit), Les Miles at LSU (9 over) or Steve Spurrier at South Carolina (who signed 30 players, with one potential addition out there, and is 5 over), simply using the rules available to them for maximum effect?
The thorny issue of oversigning is one that has school presidents Machen drawing lines in the sand over. They think it is corruptible, gosh darn it, and reprehensible toward the student-athlete. "We promised Jimmy Threestar an education, by golly, and we're going to uphold that promise!" Of course, Machen didn't blink twice about any promises associated with Ron Zook's multi-year contract when he departed Gainesville with hat in hand.
But the opposing argument seems to make more sense. Look, it isn't like recruiting is a pristine art form. Coaches around the country make NASCAR crew chiefs look like patron saints in the way they massage the rulebook every recruiting season. And when it comes right down to it, who would you rather be -- Nick Saban cashing $4 million-plus yearly salaries, or former Miami coach Randy Shannon, who is unemployed after ethically raising graduation rates among the Hurricanes but committing the cardinal sin of not winning enough.
Clearly, the NCAA will dip its big toe into the wave pool and try to referee the Jimmy Threestar Doughnut Habit vs. Nick Saban Winning Machine argument. It is a debate that has winning and losing aspects on both sides, and a cavalcade of voices and noises chirping from all angles.
But at the end of the day, Jimmy Threestar vs. Powerful State U. almost always is won by Powerful State U.
Is that a crime?
Is that unethical?