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Discourses on Football Recruiting (or what philosophy majors do while waiting for September)

First, I would like to offer my compliments to Kyle on one of the best blog posts of the year so far. This post should be remembered come College Football Blogger Award season, if for no other reason than that theoretical physics and the mainstream sports media have really been looking for each other for years, but needed someone to bring them together. Oh, what I would pay to watch Erwin Schrodinger chatting it up with Mike Leach . . .

Now, back to recruiting. The University of Georgia continued its up, down and sideways football recruiting in recent days. Offensive tackle Tyler Love loved his visit to Athens. But current verbal commitments Dwayne Allen and Toby Jackson are now not so sure about playing in Athens in 2008. This recent news made today a good time to publish my Recruiting Manifesto, the guide by which I cover college football recruiting. Most of these principles have been palpable in my writing on this page and previously on Macondawg's Blog. But I thought now would be a good time to make them explicit. So when reading recruiting coverage on this site, remember:

1) "Commitment" is a fluid term of art, not a static concept. Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines commitment as "an agreement or pledge to do something in the future." Within the world of college athletics, commitments can be either verbal (and thus by definition nonbinding) or written (and by administrative dictate, binding).

Every so often a player who had previously given a verbal commitment to the University of Georgia (or any other school) changes his mind and decides to go elsewhere. The fan reaction as represented in the blogosphere and on message boards is always the same: the young man is roundly criticized as being of deficient moral fiber and low character. He's called a liar. Disloyal. Maybe even cursed.

This reaction is, I think, the result of two phenomena. The first is a base feeling of rejection. When a college football player spurns your team, it is as if by extension he is spurning you and what you believe in. Never mind that the young man in question has never met you. Or perhaps he has met you, and that alone was enough to convince him that the University of West-Central Idaho isn't comparably that bad a place to prepare him for the NFL. Either way, the reaction is a visceral one, not a logical one.

The second, and I think the more underappreciated of the phenomena, is that fact that commitment is a term of art within the college football landscape. When a 17 year old says he is commited, he usually means it. But his concept of commitment is different from yours and mine. To us "commitment" conjures up thoughts of wedding vows, saving for junior's college fund, and other weighty issues that are part and parcel of real life out here in the work-a-day world. "Commitment" in this sense is imbued with a notion of finality which is lacking in college football recruiting because a) the NCAA says verbal commitments are nonbinding, and they make the rules, and b) 17 year olds are generally incapable of committing to anything. That is part of the Socratic ideal of teenagers. The inability to plan long term is an integral part of their being. This frustrates adults in a variety of contexts, and no one has yet been able to explain to me why college football should be any different.

I think it was either Wittgenstein or Dan Hawkins who said that philosophy's problems arise when our language is ripped from its contextual moorings and forced into a different metaphysical environment.

2) Adam Smith and Karl Marx can agree on this: College recruiting is an economic animal, and that's beneficial. While Smith and Marx don't agree on everything, this much I think they could each accept. Smith of course recognized the value of the free market and division of labor in fostering innovation and an effective allocation of resources. College football recruiting is regulated to an extent that Smith would certainly find either amusing or appalling. Maybe by turns, both. But the fact is that the ability of high school football players to visit with coaches, examine depth charts, talk with current players, read the newspapers and generally avail themselves of tons of information creates a distribution of talent across the college football landscape. That's how free markets work. Therefore, when Foley, Alabama standout Pat White wants to play quarterback and the University of Alabama won't let him, he is free to go to West Virginia. When a player wants to play as a freshman and the University of Georgia cannot offer that, the player is free to go to Florida for that opportunity (where of course he will end up #6 on the depth chart at wide receiver, but that's not the issue here).

The point is that free markets are built on free movement of capital, both monetary and human. I personally like the idea that kids can choose to break their commitments if a better offer comes along in the same way that you can leave your job if a better offer comes along. All other things being equal, I tend to support economic freedom, so I won't generally blame a kid for switching schools if it is in his best interests.

"But" you lament, "if he is taking up a scholarship slot while shopping around, that's something different. In this case, the player is creating a barrier to the movement of players and creating an inefficiency in the system. And the free market abhors inefficiency." OK, maybe you don't say that. But somebody's got to construct the strawman argument.

My position on players who claim to be committed but aren't? Yank the scholarship offer, coach. You can do it. Unless you don't want to. The fact is loyalty, like other traits in a recruit, should be considered. There is an opportunity cost built into each scholarship offer. If you think a guy might jilt you for greener pastures (paging Antwane Greenlee . . .) you can continue recruiting him if he's just that good. Or you can rescind the offer and go with a kid who's just about as promising and would be willing to walk through Tank Johnson's living room to play at your school. If you're the coach at Georgia, Florida or just about any SEC school not named after Commodore Vanderbilt, the hills are chock full of those guys.

Marx of course would point out that those who control the means of production make the rules and pull the strings. Somehow I don't think Karl would have liked Myles Brand very much for precisely this reason. At a different level, coaches and universities are the gatekeepers of the college football economy. They control who plays, who gets a scholarship offer, who gets a billboard in Time Square, and a million other details. In short, a Marxist interpretation of college football would situate Bob Stoops and Mark Richt as members of the burgeosie, and John Q. Prospect as a member of the proletariat. Marx would say that Mark Richt's admonition that you don't propose to your sweetheart then go on a date with some other gal is just a way to keep players indentured, rather thanbeing able to exercise freedom of choice. As a result, Marx would probably support any measure which gives John Prospect more freedom to choose.

As I agreed with Smith, I agree to some extent with Karl (as regards college football, that is). I've noted in regard to the possibility of an early signing period for football that whining from college coaches about how decommitments hurt them do not convince me. No matter what, coaches will always be dealing from a position of power in the recruiting process. That is what happens when you control the resources and the means of production, comrade. Don't come crying to me when the workers begin comparing notes and realize that you probably won't give them a shot at tailback.

3) Every person is unique. Every freshman defensive end is not. Now, defensive ends are people too. Some of them are wonderful people. A few of them are wonderful defensive ends. But no defensive end is so much better than all the others that we should be apoplectic if he signs with Auburn. There are literally hundreds of freshmen who will begin their first fall of college football in the next couple of weeks. Some of them will be great. Other will not. Five years from now you won't be able to name most of them and certainly won't be able to say that your team would have been significantly better had you landed offensive guard A rather than offensive guard B. Unless you're Mike Shula. Did I mention he probably should have offered Pat White? While recruiting as a whole is the life blood of football programs, the decision of any individual player is not going to make or break things. So relax.

4) The rankings really don't tell the story. This point is almost a cliche. However, it bears repeating. The qualities that give any recruit a chance at greatness are readily visible on tape. Size, speed, agility and technique are easy to spot. But the intangibles that make one player better than another never are. And a lot of things can happen on the way to the NFL Draft podium. That's why Quentin Moses was, according to Rivals, the fourth best defensive end Georgia signed in 2002 (behind Marcus Jackson, Aaron Scranton and Preston Pannell). That's why everybody thought David Pollack would play fullback.

While the recruiting services are right more often than they are wrong in regards to talent, there is not a metric out there yet for character, diligence, or competitive drive. Until there is we'll just have to compare bench press numbers and completion percentages, and revel in the stories of guys like Thomas Davis, who don't care how many stars they've been assigned. That being said, if you think recruiting rankings are totally useless, you haven't been paying attention. Or your team's ranking is lower than you would like. Or maybe both. As I've pointed out in the past, recruiting services "miss" far more often because of injuries or off-field problems than lack of talent.

5) "Offered" lists tell most of the story. If you want to know how much potential a high school football recruit has, see which schools have offered him. While that list will often correlate with recruiting rankings, it's not always the same. To make an analogy from the world of finance, looking at the schools that have offered a player a scholarship is like looking at which mutual fund and investment bank gurus have bought a certain security. Peter Lynch might be wrong, and Warren Buffett might be wrong. But it's far less likely that both are wrong. Ditto for Mark Richt and Urban Meyer. If Georgia, Florida, LSU and Oklahoma offer a player, it means that a cross section of the best coaches in the country think that the player could be one of the best. That's never insignificant.

I'm sure there are other truisms I should include on this list. Perhaps you have some suggestions, or think I'm just flat wrong on some of these. Either way, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section.