NCAA Bans Early Recruiting, But Will it Help?

In February 2010, then-thirteen-year-old David Sills made national headlines when he committed to play football at the University of Southern California. Just a seventh grader, Sills called USC his dream school. Though he would later decommit and end up starring at wide receiver for the West Virginia Mountaineers, Sills’ story helped normalize the earlier and earlier recruitment of athletes by college coaches.

At its meeting on April 19th, the 40-member NCAA Division I Council approved a proposal to ban all recruiting contact between collegiate coaches and high school athletes until June 15th after the prospective student-athlete’s sophomore year. Football, baseball, ice hockey and men’s basketball will be excluded because of the professional contracts recruits in those sports are often also considering.

Administrators, coaches, faculty, and students have been fighting early recruiting for years. In The New York Times, Tennessee women’s softball coach Karen Weekly bemoaned the fact that sixth-graders are now being swooped up by programs in her league, the Southeastern Conference. Other coaches blame it on parents who are eager to get their children admitted to elite institutions. Sometimes, it is the school trying to gain an advantage by hoarding young athletes before competitors have even seen them play.

Softball and lacrosse will also be exempted from the new NCAA regulations. In both sports, coaches follow stricter guidelines prohibiting them from contacting prospective student-athletes until September 1st of their junior year of high school. Yet in other sports like women’s rowing, the norm is to not contact athletes before January of their junior year. In these cases, the NCAA’s new ruling will thus permit coaches to talk to athletes earlier than previously allowed.

With this new rule in place, certain sports will be affected more than others— the lack of early recruiting regulations did alter the youth scene in some sports like soccer. Within soccer, there is the extreme example of Olivia Moultrie, a thirteen-year-old superstar who in February became the youngest American female player ever to turn professional. She signed with Wasserman Media Group and is even sponsored by Nike. But before that, she was the youngest player to commit to play in college, verbally agreeing to become a North Carolina Tar Heel when she was just eleven.

On Moultrie’s Instagram account, you can see her playing with the United States Under 15 National Team and appearing in Nike’s viral Dream Crazier commercial. Now she is a member of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Portland Thorns FC. But Moultrie will have to play on their academy team until she is 18—  old enough to take the field in the NWSL.

But soccer is a sport where intense, year-round training is not uncommon early in an athlete’s career. Moultrie spent last summer playing in Bayern Munich’s junior system in Germany. This year, Amsterdam-based Ajax Academy, one of the world’s most renown youth programs, has invited another American youngster to train overseas.

Makenna Stott is nine years old and recently broke Moultrie’s record by committing to play for the UCLA Bruins when she reaches college. On an Instagram account managed by her father, there are pictures of Stott meeting current U.S. national team stars, doing pull-ups and hitting trick shots, frequently while outfitted in sky-blue Bruins gear.

However, it is incredibly unlikely that Stott will ever play for UCLA. She might follow in Moultrie’s footsteps and decide to turn pro. In her sport, professional opportunities exist at home and abroad. It’s hard to see why any athlete, even those who are hardly teenagers, would pass up the chance to earn money if they still have every opportunity to play.

But not every sport has massive opportunities for younger players. No such international or national development network exists in sports like softball and lacrosse. There are only a few roster spots for professional softball players in the U.S., and none for female lacrosse stars.

Early recruiting might have helped a handful of coaches in sports where hordes of young athletes compete, like football and soccer, to hang on to prized recruits and see them slip on their college colors. However, allowing these practices to go unregulated only increased the feeling of commercialization across youth sports.

The NCAA’s new ban on early recruiting contact will be good for athletes and coaches in many sports, but should be evaluated on a per-sport basis to ensure that opportunities for youngsters, where they are already exist, are not being erased.