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Back to the Future: How the NCAA Can Solve the Problems of Oversigning and Grayshirting in College Football

Sufficient attention has been paid to the practice of oversigning---extending offers to more recruits than the school can place on scholarship---that the issue now has its own weblog. The debate about oversigning has been pushed to the forefront by Les Miles’s recent grayshirting of Elliott Porter. Due to the lack of ordinary attrition among the 27 signees who will count against LSU’s 2010 signing class, the Tiger offensive lineman was put in the position of having to delay enrollment or pay his own way after already moving into his dorm in Baton Rouge.

Although Brian Cook and I infrequently find ourselves on the same page when SEC member institutions are involved, I cannot conscientiously disagree with what the MGoBlog proprietor wrote here:

[T]his is a clear-cut case of a school signing too many kids and jerking one unlucky one around when too many qualify. Porter had a frickin' dorm room and is still trying to find a new place to land on August 4th. . . . By allowing coaches to take chances like this the NCAA is degrading respect for its other rules.

More importantly, they're treating athletes like meat. By putting himself in a situation where there was a possibility he'd have to cut a kid in August, Miles has established that his job is more important than his word or the players he recruits.

While many individual instances of grayshirting players may be defensible, the practice of gambling with incoming players’ futures as a matter of course is not. Porter did nothing to deserve getting the rug yanked out from under him, yet, perversely, he is being penalized for the fact that his fellow Bayou Bengals qualified academically and showed up as planned, just as he did. Caveat emptor may be a perfectly reasonable policy when it comes to reading Consumer Reports before purchasing a large appliance, but it’s rather callous when it comes to telling a college student his scholarship has been rescinded due to no fault of his own on the eve of the semester.

Fortunately, I, like General W.R. Monger in "Monsters vs. Aliens," don’t just have an idea . . . I have a plan.

Much to the chagrin of my friend Jason Pye, I am not a Libertarian, although I have voted for some of that party’s candidates and I am sympathetic to some of that party’s positions. For instance, I voted for Bob Barr in the 2008 presidential election, and I believe the NCAA most often governs best by governing least (you know, by letting football coaches go to players’ funerals without having to ask for special permission and stuff).

Here’s the solution to the problem of oversigning: repeal scholarship limitations. Let schools give out as many scholarships to student-athletes as they are willing and able to fund.

Ere anyone becomes apoplectic at the thought of casting aside the venerable college football tradition of limiting schools to 85 scholarships apiece, we all would do well to recall that the current limitation was imposed initially in 1994. Colleges were permitted to have 95 football players on scholarship as recently as 1991, and a school could give out as many scholarships as it wished until 1977. For a sport now in its fifteenth decade, resuming a practice that prevailed until a mere third of a century ago represents nothing more than the restoration of the traditional status quo.

In 1977, the first year of the 95-scholarship limit, the total enrollment of the University of Georgia was 23,285. As of fall semester 2009, the total enrollment of the University of Georgia was 34,885. That represents almost a 50 per cent increase in the student population, yet, during that same span, the allotment of football scholarships has dropped more than 10 per cent. Had NCAA scholarship limitations kept pace with enrollment growth, Mark Richt today would be allowed to place more than 140 student-athletes on scholarship.

That thought might give some commentators the vapors, but why should it? Keeping scholarships in line with burgeoning admissions represents a simple recognition of modern realities, and it isn’t as though the removal of NCAA restrictions would leave colleges and coaches unrestrained. Players still would be required to qualify academically, after all, and university athletic departments still would have to pay for the scholarships they granted.

The latter constraint alone would keep recruiting in line, particularly in these trying economic times in which so many schools’ athletic budgets are in the red. Furthermore, Title IX still ties the growth of women’s sports to the growth of athletics programs generally, so coaches could only expand their football rosters as far as their athletic directors were prepared to extend additional funding to programs for female athletes.

Eliminating scholarship limitations would end instantly the problem of oversigning and the practice of grayshirting. It would make the NCAA more effective in those areas that matter most by giving it fewer nitpicky rules with which to deal, as well as by giving more teeth to the Association’s enforcement authority. Think about how much more effective the NCAA scholarship reductions recently levied against USC would be if the Trojans’ Pac-10 coevals were not limited to 25-member signing classes and 85-man rosters. By giving scholarship restrictions greater impact as a punishment, the NCAA would encourage better behavior merely by eradicating an existing rule.

Beyond that, getting rid of the limit on scholarships would open up the opportunities grayshirting forecloses. If giving 85 student-athletes the chance at a university education is good, isn’t giving 100 student-athletes a chance at a university education better? (Bear in mind that, thanks to Title IX, more funding for football scholarships probably also means more funding for women’s gymnastics.)

What is the virtue in telling a university that it may not educate as many prospective students as it would like? To those who would argue that it creates an unbalanced playing field---Michigan will always be able to afford more scholarships than Eastern Michigan---I would offer a retort in three parts:

First of all, the playing field isn’t level, has never been level, and hasn’t been made level by scholarship limitations. All of Division I-A has been limited to the same number of football scholarships for more than three decades, and Eastern Michigan isn’t any closer to being on a par with Michigan than it was in the Bicentennial. To the extent that the gap has closed at all, it is because the Wolverines have fallen, which gives the Eagles no benefit beyond visceral satisfaction. Scholarship limitations may help to bring the mighty low, but they have done little to elevate the downtrodden.

Secondly, the source of the disparity between the haves and have nots has less to do with the number of scholarships a school can offer than with the number and caliber of athletes willing to accept those offers. In that sense, the rising tide is lifting all boats. Now that teams from conferences that do not qualify automatically for a major bowl berth are able to attain BCS eligibility more easily, the Boise States of the world are better able to earn the bowl payouts that make it possible for them to compete with the Ohio States of the world. Anyone who thinks scholarship numbers, rather than financial disparities, form the basis for the difference between Texas and North Texas is living in a dreamworld. If this is an issue that concerns you, fight the real enemy.

Finally, does anyone seriously advocate limiting the number of academic scholarships the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is able to offer in the hope that East Carolina University will be able to improve its academics by scooping up the students who preferred UNC but exceeded the maximum? If not, how can that position be reconciled with support for the 85-scholarship limit?

I agree that Elliott Porter was done wrong. Rather than wring our hands over the fact that this young man was caught in the switches when Les Miles made a mathematical miscalculation while trying to game a system that was set up to be gamed, we should look for a way to solve the problem. In this case, the way to solve the problem is to eliminate the regulation that created the problem in the first place.

If Coach Miles had been allowed to offer as many athletic scholarships as the LSU athletic department was willing to establish and the Tiger faithful were willing to fund, neither Elliott Porter nor any of his teammates would have been disadvantaged by the fact that an absurd rule restricts the right of Louisiana State University to educate what the NCAA considers too many students.

A popular bumper sticker reads: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." In the form of NCAA scholarship limitations, we have tried ignorance for 33 years, much to the detriment of young men like Elliott Porter. I agree with Brian Cook that Les Miles should have been more mindful of his commitment to Porter, but the point is that there never should have been a rule that prevented Coach Miles from honoring his commitment to his entire recruiting class. This experiment in ignorance is costing young men educational opportunities; balanced against that loss, the expense of extending additional scholarships is a price the NCAA ought to allow us willingly to bear.

Go ‘Dawgs!