Why I Hate Oversigning

First published in the Crystal Ball Run blog. Link to it here.

I don’t hate oversigning because it seems to be a staple of SEC recruiting strategies — I mean, Tennessee … 34? Really?

I hate it because it is the worst example of how college football subverts and overwhelms the purpose of a university — for the goal of winning.

Every CFB coach faces this.  Combine the limit of 25 scholarships per year and 85 overall with the frequent redshirting that extends possible player tenures to five years, and even the worst math student can see that the number will shoot past 85.

Even with all the sources of attrition — disabling injuries, academic casualties, discipline decisions, transfers in search of more playing time, early NFL exits and, oh yes, exhausted eligibility — coaches frequently end up with potentially more players than they have slots for.  What to do?

Many coaches avoid the issue by recruiting to 85, even if it means not bringing in a full cohort of 25 per year, to stress their commitment to the players.  Any scholarship attrition between National Signing Day and fall practice is used to reward walk-ons.

Others, like Saban, recruit to the full limit, throw in a couple of “grayshirts” whose scholarships are delayed, and then reduce the scholarship roster through a variety of tactics — including those listed above, regardless of whether they apply appropriately.  Some years it’s not needed; other years it’s needed a lot.  As one Bama fan pointed out, this is definitely one of those years for Saban.

To a sports media pack protecting a narrative, the result tidily fits the “relentless success machine.”  As is too often the case, they ignore the process (Yes, I see what I did there) and the students it affects.

But this is not the NFL.  Football has chosen to locate its developmental league on college campuses, and both the media and the colleges promote every possible dollar out of the arrangement.  So pull away from the fruit-bearing trees and see the forest here: A college/university.

Once a college football or basketball program needs to chase away excess human capital by a variety of explicit and implicit means, it diminishes the educational institution that hosts its facilities.

Some use the analogy of how academic scholarships require that students maintain a certain grade-point average.  But that is not an accurate analogy.

It would be more like our journalism faculty meeting every year to decide which junior and senior majors to ease out, so that we can accept a more promising crop of newcomers.  (Don’t worry, students. We don’t.)

Of course, we allow all of our majors who maintain a graduation-level GPA to remain in the program, and we do our part to teach and develop them — and hope to God the light comes on, in some cases.

College football and basketball programs should do the same.  They owe it not only to the athletes who lack a coach’s options after they sign a scholarship, but also to the universities that educate thousands of students besides those who compete.

Others point out that, particularly at Alabama, hardly any football players publicly protest after being eased out.  But a system is not right because the student-athletes do not complain about it.

Colleges often do things that diminish their mission, and students don’t complain about it.  The over-reliance on poorly paid and protected part-time instructors comes to mind.  Just because students don’t notice or complain does not make the practice right.

As a former faculty athletics committee member, I do recognize that other sports function under different scholarship levels — they cannot provide full scholarships to an entire roster — so the management of scholarships is handled differently.

But let’s not allow the deluge-ional revenue available through football and basketball to cloud the mission of a university.  I cheer these athletes from the stands, but I also teach them and others from the classroom.  It happens.

I hope that Gus Malzahn does not oversign.  If he does, I will speak out against the practice, regardless of how many championships or bazillions of simoleons he brings to the university.

But our mission as university faculty is to add to the base of knowledge through research and to pass this knowledge along to the next generations.  Call me corny, but to me, that is the treasure of the university — the students who fill our campuses.

Let’s not reduce some to the means to an end, just because they profit a coach, a campus, its fans and the sports media.

John Carvalho is an associate professor of journalism at Auburn University.  A former sports magazine editor, he summoned enough focus to complete a Ph.D. at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He tweets about sports media issues at johncarvalhoau.  While he does not believe in oversigning, his students believe he over-grades.