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Should Mark Richt and the Georgia Bulldogs Engage in Oversigning?

Advocates of oversigning will claim that college football is a business, and there is nothing wrong with universities engaging in such competitive practices, so long as they are within the bounds of the law and NCAA guidelines. However, such an attitude fails to take into account the persistent exploitation of young men who are dependent on coaches and universities keeping their promises amidst a flawed system. Athletic departments already exploit student-athletes for tens of millions in profit in exchange for a minimal price - the cost of an athletic scholarship. Yet, where players are deemed to have no further value to an institution and punished through the revocation of their financial scholarship, the line between college and professional football becomes blurred to the point where universities forget that they are first and foremost academic institutions shaping the minds of young individuals, regardless of the amount of money that is poured into their football programs. It is at that sad point where institutions championing higher learning allow the notions of fair play, morality, and ethics to be compromised in the name of winning a game played primarily by teenagers.

Justin N. Fielkow, Tulane Sports Law Blog

(Hat tip:
"It’s a head-scratcher," McGarity said. "I think the thing you focus on is, ‘What kind of conversation are you having with these young men and their parents up front? Are you making them aware of all the dynamics that could occur?’ I think the majority of the time that's probably not the case." . . .

"The goal is to never make a promise you can't keep," Richt said. "That's the big thing for me. If there's a kid that you say, 'Hey look, we are at our number. Those numbers change. There's attrition. Things happen,' but the hard thing is when you sign a guy in February and then you don't have to declare your number until school starts, and you know there may be some attrition in the meantime. … To say that it wouldn't have nice to have one or two other guys that you thought could come in and make an impact on your football team, that's the tough part."

Richt said he has warned UGA signees before of the possibility of a grayshirt if the numbers fell a certain way, but that "there’s never been a time where we had a guy in that situation where he ended up grayshirting."

Gentry Estes

Obviously, there is much to admire in the principled stand taken by Greg McGarity and Mark Richt on the issue of oversigning, though it is important to note that the words of our athletic director and our head coach quoted above focus more on full disclosure than on blanket prohibitions of particular practices; both stressed the importance, practically and morally, of making recruits aware of the possibility that the math might not work out as planned, in order to enable a recruit to make a fully informed choice.

The fact that Coach Richt has never had to ask a signee to greyshirt is a testament to his integrity, but it also helps explain why Georgia had the fewest scholarship football players in the 14-team SEC even before Isaiah Crowell’s dismissal put us another scholarship down, leaving the Bulldogs’ depth so threatened that esquiredawg argued plausibly that the Red and Black effectively have placed themselves on probation for the 2012 campaign. This raises the question whether Georgia should oversign.

Relax; I’m not talking about trying to pull a Houston Nutt by inking more than 35 players on a single signing day and proceeding to park them in junior colleges. I’m talking about doing what Greg McGarity and Mark Richt talked about doing above; namely, communicating forthrightly with prep prospects and their families about the Bulldogs’ scholarship numbers and recruiting targets, so they can make reasoned choices regarding the risks they are prepared to run. It appears we are doing this already, and kudos are due for the conscientiousness of Georgia’s approach. As long as we’re being completely honest with every high school player we’re pursuing, though, what is the difference between exhibiting candor with two or three kids and explaining the math to four or five kids?

As powerful as Fielkow’s above-quoted rhetoric is, his exhortations are too strong by half. To say that college football is “a game played primarily by teenagers” is to say that it is a game played entirely by legal adults, and the cries of “exploitation” overstate the case considerably, for three reasons. First of all, there is more information out there than ever before; multiple competing websites track the offers extended to high-profile recruits, and Coach Richt clearly makes a point of full disclosure to the prospects he is pursuing. Mark Richt is an honest man, and the young men to whom he extends scholarship offers have the means to verify independently the accuracy of what he is telling them.

Secondly, student-athletes are not necessarily being disadvantaged merely because their presence on campus enables the institution to generate income. The University of Georgia notes the number of Rhodes Scholars to have come out of Athens when authoring fundraising literature and budget requests, as well, but, as long as both parties are benefiting, the division of benefits may be unequal without being inequitable; the Rhodes Scholar may have gotten a smaller share of the financial benefits, but the institution had the higher overhead and conferred the greater long-term reward, in the form of an education.

Granted, many football players are much closer to the margins, academically and financially, than many Foundation Fellows, but the athletes in that position have the greater opportunity to better their standing through the education an athletic scholarship offers. That brings us to the third, and most important, reason Fielkow overstates his case by claiming college football “exploit[s] student-athletes for tens of millions in profit in exchange for a minimal price - the cost of an athletic scholarship.” The expense to the institution may be minimal, but it is the height of condescension to suggest that a college scholarship is of only nominal value . . . and I say so as someone who is still paying off student loans from law school, and who has never once complained about having to make those payments, because it was entirely worth it.

I agree with McGarity that we owe it to recruits to put all the cards on the table. I agree with Coach Richt that we should promise prospects only what we know we are able to deliver, and that we should make them aware of any risks. It may be that some recruits would prefer other, more certain options; if they are willing to forego a bird in the hand for the possibility of two in the bush, though, that is their choice to make, provided they are working with the full set of facts McGarity and Coach Richt appear committed to giving them, and, if they have to accept the possibility of greyshirting because no other alternatives are open to them in the form of more definite scholarship offers from other schools, well, then it sounds like the half a chance they are being given by the Bulldogs is half a chance more than anyone else is giving them.

I am not prepared to go whole hog in support of oversigning. I am concerned about the potential for abuse of the greyshirt as a roster management tool, since medical redshirts require NCAA approval but grayshirts for rehabilitating injuries do not, and I am cognizant of the dangerous degree to which all of a recruit’s bargaining power vanishes after he has inked his national letter of intent. Moreover, I agree with Fielkow’s exploitation point enough to support stipends for student-athletes.

I have argued before that the solution to problems of roster management is to increase the number of football scholarship a school may offer, but, because that will not happen, there is a happy medium. I am proud of Greg McGarity and Mark Richt for their refusal to be reckless with the futures of the young men to whom the University of Georgia extends scholarship offers, but nothing in life is wholly without risks and reasonable chances may be taken by fully informed players and coaches who are familiar with common patterns of attrition over a period of years. I am starting to believe Mr. Sanchez has a point when he argues that, while oversigning by 25 poses an ethical problem, even if it does not technically violate any rules, oversigning by three is a gamble everyone involved ought to be willing to make.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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