Lunacy of college sports

This is completely crazy, not to mention abusive. A ninth-grader is committing to a college because of a soccer scholarship. It verges on the immorality of arranged child marriages: this kid spent almost every evening in eighth grade talking to coaches instead of doing homework (or having fun!).  The whole story is worth a read, as it shows how this madness isn’t even good for soccer itself, never mind the players.

No fourteen-year-old (putting aside prodigies who have already blown away their high school courses) can possibly know what college, or what kind of college, will be the best fit for her four-years-older and -more-experienced self.  Period. What if she decides she wants to be an engineer and CalTech starts to look attractive, or a singer and discovers Berklee, or for that matter decides rugby is more fun than soccer? She can ditch the UTA scholarship and go elsewhere, but will she even explore those things if she’s spending her whole high school career assuming her die is cast, taking her commitment seriously, and living on a playing field?  What if she gets hurt in 12th grade and didn’t get the GPA that would put her on a good career track that uses the inside of her head?

This industry is deeply and pervasively sick.  The presidents — yes, and AD’s –who allow it to go on as it is are simply contemptible and cowardly. And Ms. Berg’s parents could spend some quality time thinking about their responsibilities, too.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

15 thoughts on “Lunacy of college sports”

  1. Not exactly new: I present to you the cautionary tale of basketball recruit Taylor King, “King had been on the national radar for years. Steve King admittedly pushed him to commit to the local school, UCLA, as an eighth-grader. He started at national high school power Mater Dei as a freshman and played on arguably the most talented AAU outfit in the past decade, the Southern Cal All-Stars — along with Kevin Love, Brandon Jennings, Chase Budinger and Renardo Sidney.” Of those 3 of those 4 names ended up in the NBA. Here’s a a spoiler: King did not make it to the NBA, but he is playing basketball somewhere.

  2. I ceased to be surprised when I saw it was Texans. After all the most important thing in a Texas education is the sports team you’re on. Books & such truck are a distraction.

  3. Right, as if the goal for your child to attend a public or private elite university does not start
    from preschool and ends senior year of high school. So, would it be equally sick and twisted?
    Or, is it so gauche that kids are running around kicking or throwing a ball that enables them to
    enter? Pick your poison, Socrates.

    1. I’m not a fan of all the theatrics and extracurricular work that are expected of the highly ambitious student (among other problems, these expectations massively discriminate against young people who lack the economic freedom to spend the summer digging wells in Guatemala, or who lack the social background to realize the importance of assorted activities of this sort and the connections to get them introductions to snag the best resume-buffing opportunities).

      Still, there’s a huge difference between an ambitious kid who’s dedicated their teenage years to obsessive demonstration of their suitability for further progress in one field of achievement (whether that’s mechanical engineering or soccer) and that same kid having committed to a particular school. Don’t you see that?

  4. I generally agree, but I believe that the rules prevent such early commitments from being binding. Prodigies like this do change their minds, and this anecdote does not go to the heart of the issues here. I am not an advocate for the athletic scholarship system in general, but I also think that most such athletes are not particularly exploited, but do quite well on the deal. Bear in mind that these scholarships are nearly always highly competitive; are all such students — and their parents — wildly misguided? I don’t think so. Among the sub-groups of athletes who in fact may be exploited are *some* — far from all — male basketball and football players, who are recruited as “cannon fodder” with minimal professional prospects and inadequate concern for their educations. However, that rarely extends to other sports, such as women’s soccer.

    1. Until a National Letter of Intent is signed none of these commitments are binding on either the athlete or the school. A NLI cannot be signed until sometime during an athlete’s senior year of high school, with the specific date varying by sport.

      The non-binding nature can be abused. Within the sport I follow most closely, women’s ice hockey, there is an Ivy League school that has a reputation for taking non-binding commitments from more kids than the coach will actually want and then having some of them mysteriously denied admission to the school. Given the late date when this happens it can leave an athlete scrambling to find a spot somewhere else.

  5. It’s worth noting that in Europe, a soccer prodigy his age would get signed to a professional club. Soccer players don’t come up through a college sports system, they come up through private youth academies run by the pro teams.

    1. I’ll add that although most of the best prospects do still play in college in the U.S., there are increasing numbers of private clubs that are affiliated with MLS teams. Moreover, though soccer is still much less popular here than in Europe, it was already true even when I was playing over a decade ago that if you wanted to play in college and get a shot at the pros, you probably needed to play for some pretty elite club teams for, at minimum, all of your teen years.

    2. Not only in Europe. The Brazilian soccer star Neymar was signed by Santos FC at the ripe age of 11.

    3. The athletic scholarship system is less problematical in sports where it is an entirely optional route to a pro career — notably hockey, baseball, golf, and soccer. The harder issues arise overwhelmingly in football and men’s basketball, where college is a near-mandatory de facto minor league system. Not by coincidence, those two sports generate most of the money in college athletics.

  6. Early commitments like this stem from an arms race among college programs. It is usually driven by coaches who are trying to build a program and have to recruit against better established teams. One of the ways they try to do this is by recruiting athletes at a younger age than do their rivals higher in the pecking order. The goal is to have a kid committed to their program (it’s not binding but it places a psychological barrier to looking elsewhere) before the more established places have really geared up.

    Most coaches hate this process and really wish that there were a way to dial it back and not even start the recruitment process until after an athlete’s sophomore season of high school competition with the serious recruiting being done during the junior season. But there’s no way to enforce that and the logic drives everyone to younger ages.

    The rules actually prohibit anyone from an NCAA athletic program (which includes not only employees but also members of booster clubs) initiating contact with a prospective student-athlete prior to the summer before their junior season. But there is nothing preventing a kid from contacting a coach and it happens regularly. A coach that tries to put off recruiting until later is going to be in trouble when it comes time to sign NLIs.

  7. Well it reflects this strange American perversion of “Tiger Parenting” doesn’t it?

    It’s nonsense to say that “Asian” parents (in East Asia or the US) push their kids in ways American parents don’t. The difference is that Asian parents push their kids to spend their time doing something mostly useful (studying) whereas American parents push their kids to do something mostly useless (sports).
    They both have a blind spot when it comes to performing arts, both spending (IMHO) far too much time on this, but of course the Asian performing arts time-wasters tend to be high-brow while the US performing arts time-wasters are lower-brow — so at least the time wasted by the Asian looks better on a CV.

    1. What this misses is that the NCAA is right when it says that college athletes on average do well academically and “most go pro in something other than sports.” Only a small percentage, even among full-ride athletic scholarship recipients, really expect — realistically or not — to make their fortunes as athletes. They therefore have essentially the same academic incentives as other students, and generally respond as well or a bit better. I am not a fan of the athletic scholarship system nor of big time shameteur college sports. Inaccurate broad-brush descriptions, however, are very common and entirely unhelpful.

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