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Of Sills and Silliness

Do you remember David Sills?

On February 5, 2010, Sills made a verbal commitment to attend the University of Southern California and to play football for coach Lane Kiffin. Sills’ pledge gained national attention for one reason: he was a 13 year-old seventh-grader at the time.

The recently concluded NCAA Convention in Grapevine, Texas, will be remembered as one in which a new era of laissez-faire policies, of deregulation, became law. The NCAA, which has been greatly –and often rightly so –criticized for finding the dust beneath the counter while missing the steaming pile of garbage atop the coffee table, passed 25 of 26 proposals. While the NCAA did not fully turn the culture of recruiting into the Autobahn, it certainly relaxed the speed limits. It was as if Mark Emmert and his staff at last threw up their hands and said, “We are going to allow you to set your own limits on such matters as the frequency with which you contact recruits during contact periods. At some point even you will begin to acknowledge that less is more.”

In Emmert’s actual words, he wanted to give schools more responsibility so that the NCAA could “focus the rules on those things that are real threat to the integrity of sport rather than things that are mostly annoying.”

Which returns us to David Sills, whom Kiffin was able to extend a scholarship offer — a token gesture at best for someone who is at the advent of puberty — because he had not yet even entered high school.  Of the 26 proposals that were up for consideration, only one was tabled by the 18-member board: a proposal to advance by exactly one year the date at which coaches are permitted to start contacting recruits. Currently coaches are allowed to begin contacting a recruit at midnight, July 1st, between their junior and senior years (and the most ambitious coaches make that first call to that coveted five-star just seconds after the clock strikes twelve).

The motion that was tabled would allow coaches to begin contacting recruits on July 1st between their sophomore and junior seasons. What would happen, though, if the NCAA went as far in deregulating the initial contact date as it has in deregulating frequency of contact? What, indeed, would happen if schools could sign players to national letters of intent as early as both parties (school and recruit) agreed to do so?

A confession: our colleague at Sports Illustrated, first posited this idea to me at least five years ago, and as each successive recruiting season passes (although every day of the year is recruiting season; ask any recruiting coordinator) we cozy up to the concept even further. As long as each school’s scholarship limit (currently a maximum of 25 per year) remains uniform with every one of its competitors, why not deregulate the ultimate aspect of recruiting…signing on the dotted line and sending in the fax.

Granted, there is an enormous amount of risk on both sides. A young man such as David Sills may want to play for USC because he was bowled –but not BCS-bowled, not yet– over by the sheer magnetism of Lane Kiffin. But who is to say that Kiffin would even be employed at Southern California in Februay of 2015, which is the earliest that Sills will be able to sign a letter of intent, as the rules currently stand.

As for the Trojans, well, who is to say that Sills will develop, physically, mentally and emotionally, at the precocious pace that he has done so until this moment? Who is to say that Sills, who has worked with quarterback guru Steve Clarkson extensively since the age of nine, will not be burnt out by the time he matriculates at college? Does the name Todd Marinovich ring a bell to anyone?

Both sides would be taking a risk. The stakes for any school would be the same, though. Say that Nebraska covets a bull-headed tank of a fullback from Des Moines who rushes for 1,500 yards as a high school freshman. Do the Huskers sit and wait to see how he does as a sophomore, or do they sign him because they worry that Iowa or Wisconsin will secure his services first? And what, of course, if that fullback blows out his knee as a high school junior (and even if he does not, can you imagine how difficult it would be for high school coaches to coach a boy who already has a scholarship offer from a major football power for his last season or two? Or would the university –and that boy’s parents –strongly encourage him not to play football so as not to risk injury?).

Such a Never Too Early policy would still hold to the same rules. If a school signed you at age five, for example, you would still owe that institution your first year of eligibility (or you’d have to sit out one year if you had a change of heart) while the institution would still owe you one year on full scholarship. The stakes would remain just as high, in other words. Would such deregulation be good or bad? Most likely, neither. As with the NCAA’s decision to allow schools to contact recruits as often as possible, we will see that unadulterated freedom will ultimately persuade schools to find their own happy medium. Anyone who witnessed the nuclear arms race will understand. At a certain point you have more nukes than anyone will ever need and by devoting even more resources to keep up with your adversary, you are only harming your overall enterprise.

The decision to allow schools and recruits to commit to one another –by written consent — at any time would also  lead both parties to be somewhat more circumspect. Schools would likely make some early offers, though most would never do so as early as Kiffin offered Sills (and again, that was partly a publicity stunt since neither side had anything to lose). The entire game of recruiting, however, would be far more intriguing.

Would it be any sillier or more rife with duplicity and broken promises as the current culture of football recruiting has demonstrated itself to be? No. That’s not humanly possible.

An update on young Mr. Sills, by the way. He recently concluded his sophomore year at Eastern Christian Academy, which is a school that you will not locate on any map. It is a “virtual” school at which all 46 students take courses online and all of them happen to be members of the football team. The school was founded only last year, but more than half of Eastern Christian’s eight scheduled opponents refused to play them. When you have a system that fosters this type of approach to tail-wags-dog secondary education, could a radical recruiting proposal like the one we’ve suggested here (okay, that Mr. Staples did years ago) really be so off-base?

Fantasy and E-sports could land you a sports scholarship.

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