Wednesday, February 02, 2011


Today is National Signing Day, when high school football players sign their Letter of Intent to play at a particular school. In short, it's when they make their decisions official.

It'd be absurd for anyone to claim that college football is about anything but cash. I love it, but it's as corrupt as horse racing. Coaches face immediate pressure to win and will do anything to make that happen.

Back in the 80s, schools could sign as many players as they wanted. It allowed 10 schools to dominate the sport--they'd all have over 100 players on scholarship; most wouldn't play, but schools wanted them to not play for conference opponents.

Over the years, the NCAA has evened the playing field some. Today, a school has 85 total scholarships with a maximum of 25 given out per year.

But schools have found a way around that 25 rule. They oversign. They offer scholarships to more than 25 players, sometimes up to 30. Then they do 2 things. First, they give them something called a "grayshirt." This means that a player can't come to school until the spring semester. They have to stay at home for what should be the fall semester of their freshmen year. Then, they can be counted against the next year's class.

This is a pretty loathsome practice. Sometimes this is prearranged, but more often is that players are told this after signing day. Then what are they going to do? Their alternative schools have signed other players and don't have room for them.

The second practice is even more disgusting--kicking players off teams. Theoretically, a scholarship covers 4 years of eligibility (which sometimes means 5 years). That means a student should get a full chance to play and earn a college degree. Technically however, it is contingent and must be renewed yearly.

Most of your better institutions don't do this. The Big 10, probably the academically strongest of the six major conferences (with the Pac-12 close behind) has banned the practice of oversigning entirely. But the SEC and lesser conferences like Conference USA, where football is far more important than education, allows teams to kick players off. This means that the scholarship is renewable yearly not as a formality (which is more common) but as more of a professional contract, except of course the student-athletes aren't getting paid over the table. So a school like South Carolina (which signed an absurd 33 players today) or Arkansas (30) is telling players already on scholarship that they need to a) transfer, b) quit, or c) be forced out with mysterious medical discharges.

This process is not only morally reprehensible, but it also gives the SEC much of its vaunted advantage. By bringing in extra players every year and kicking out those who haven't lived up to expectations, they are ensuring a broader base of talent than other teams.

It's ridiculous, it's been going on for years, and it's finally getting some needed attention. Andy Staples at Sports Illustrated has paid particular attention. He put together a chart ranking the average number of players signed over the past 5 years. Again noting the maximum per year is supposed to be 25, here's the top 10:

1. Troy, 32.8
2. Mississippi, 29.0
3. Auburn, 28.8
4. Mississippi St., 27.6
5. Kansas St., 27.4
6. Temple, 27.2
7. Southern Mississippi, 27.0
T8. Arkansas, 26.8
T8. Kentucky, 26.8
T10. Alabama, 26.6
T10. Iowa St., 26.6

Hardly surprising then that Alabama and Auburn have won 3 national championships in the past 10 years, what with all the extra players they choose from. And the fact that 6 of those 10 schools come from the states of Alabama and Mississippi is quite telling.

Note as well that not a single first-rate academic institution signed more than the 25 per year. The University of Washington averaged exactly 25.0.

There is much to loathe about the institution of college football. But crappy schools in football-crazed states trying to game the system while screwing kids over really galls me.