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Post More about an early football signing period

Wednesday May 23, 2007

With chatter about an early football signing period starting to increase, I wanted to think it through a little more. I can’t bring myself to entirely condemn the idea because other sports manage to get by with an early signing period, but something about it makes me doubt that it’s the best thing for football.

The chief argument for an early signing period usually reads similar to this: "by signing early, prospects could eliminate the pressure of the recruiting process and enjoy their senior years while focusing on academics and/or football." Sound about right? Packaged that way, it reads as if the intent is entirely altruistic, and who wouldn’t want to relieve these poor high school students from some of the pressure from the increasingly insane recruiting process?

In reality, you can tell who really benefits from an early signing period by those making noise for it: coaches and fans. Coaches and fans want the early signing period for similar reasons: make those commitments binding as soon as possible.

Forgive me if I don’t cry for the programs who are left in the lurch when a commitment changes his mind. If a prospect changes his mind at any time after the letter of intent is signed, the penalties are severe. An entire year of playing time is forfeited. There are no such consequences when a coach changes jobs or a program takes a different direction. The time before a letter of intent is signed is the only opportunity the student-athlete has for the next four or five years to reconsider his decision without a major cost. Why constrain that time period for the further benefit of the school?

There are some other minor questions that should be answered. Some of these are trivial, but I wonder if early signing period proponents consider them.

  • Pressure on a prospect could actually increase with an early signing period. The elite prospects can sign whenever they please; there will always be scholarships waiting for them. But for the marginal prospects, an offer might hinge on their willingness to rush their decision and sign early. You don’t think members of Grant Teaff’s AFCA would stoop to that level? Welcome to recruiting.
  • An early football signing period would have to be earlier than that of any other sport – possibly even before the prospect’s senior year. We would attempt to remove some pressure on seniors by placing more concentrated pressure on kids just out of their junior years, few of whom are 18.
  • The summer months aren’t dead times in the college and prep football worlds. Summer camps are critical evaluation opportunities for both the schools and the prospects. Would a signing period not long after the camps encourage more hasty and emotion-based decisions?
  • Is an early signing period really in the best interests of the school? By pushing the decision process before the senior season, is the chance of missing on a prospect greater?
  • Football is a senior’s game more than most other sports. It’s usually when the best stats are recorded, and the physical maturation of a high school football player is considerable from year to year. By signing before the senior season, a prospect could miss out on better offers that come from a solid senior season.

This is one area where I think college football has it right. Signing in early February allows the prospect to enjoy the 4+ remaining months in his senior year, focus on academics, and still take the time to make an informed decision. Schools are able to make decisions based on a complete body of work. Prospects are able to watch the most recent college season, know if their coach(es) will still be there the next year, and take official visits at their pace either during or after their own seasons. I don’t deny that there can be pressure throughout the process on those who commit early, but prospects who make it clear that their decision is firm seem to be more or less left alone. Those dealing with constant pressure to change their minds are often those who can’t say no or who leave the door open to the possibility that their commitment isn’t firm.

The world won’t end if we get a summer signing period in college football. I don’t necessarily mind attaching a stronger obligation to the verbal commitment, and an early signing period would do that. I just don’t see the idea solving any big, pressing problems, and I can see it creating a few minor ones. Someone would have to show me a real set of benefits to the student-athlete because the deck is already stacked enough against them.

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