The year was 1998. Jim Heckman and his group of investors set out to create a website centered around doling out recruiting information for the public. The result was the first version of Rivals.com. As time went on, the Rivals recruiting network came upon hard times and was shut down, due to financial deficiencies. Alliance Sports though, had the foresight to purchase Rivals.com and relaunch it, leading the fired Heckman to branch off and once again start a new recruiting service under the name, "The Insiders." "The Insiders" was later re-branded and became the Scout.com that we all know today. There is plenty more to know in the story of recruiting, such as the creation of 247Sports in 2010 which has taken the recruiting industry by storm, as well as ESPN's recruiting department's rise to power, but these are the basics when it comes to determining the true beginning of the recruiting era.
It was a very different time in 1998, with the lack of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and every other social media outlet that makes it far too easy to instantly share information with the entire world. Recruiting was still an integral part of college football, but it wasn't nearly as public as today. Coaches visited recruits, sent them mail and visited their schools to watch them play. No big fuss was made when a recruit decided that he would attend a school, until National Signing Day when he officially became a signed member of the university.
Fast-forward to 2014. Recruiting is one of the most popular topics in sports, and certainly the one of the most popular segments of college football. Thousands of people pay monthly subscriptions to get the newest information on each and every high school athlete that is willing to talk to someone about themselves, the second said information is available. Countless Twitter users send tweets to recruits every day, begging them to attend their schools, creating photo-shopped pictures of what they would look like in their team's uniforms and ruthlessly chastising them when they choose to go elsewhere. Coaches send mail, emails, tweets, Facebook messages, call, visit their homes and schools, talk to their coaches, and reach out to their parents as ways to contact the recruits. The recruits in turn gain thousands and thousands of followers across various social media platforms, who hinge on every word that they type out, whether it be positive or negative for the fan's school of choice.
Among all of this, it becomes very easy to forget that these are 16/17/18 year old kids, trying to decide which institution of higher learning best suits his interests, the same way that any other 16/17/18 year old does. The culture of sports today is one that expects the athletes who we root for to be unbreakable and incapable of feeling normal human emotions that could drag them down and keep them from accomplishing their athletic goals. Expecting results from a professional athlete is expected. Expecting success and positive results from someone who is paid to throw a ball around or to run faster than anyone else is acceptable, in the same way that it is acceptable to expect a teacher to give their full effort to teaching their students, or for a financial consultant to give you the best possible advice on what to do with your money. In today's world though, it has become more and more difficult to find the line between professional athletes, and amateur ones (in the college sense). Despite where you fall on the topic of college athlete compensation, the simple fact is that student-athletes are not paid to do what they do.
Place yourself back in your late teenage years/very early 20s. How would you feel if every time you made a mistake, thousands of people sent you messages vilifying you and blaming you for their own personal unhappiness? Probably not very good. Yet, that is what happens every week for each college sport's season. It doesn't matter if we're talking about the less than kind messages sent to Sam Ficken following his forgettable game against Virginia, or the threats sent to Kaelin Clay after he inadvertently dropped the ball on the way to the end zone. There will always be those out there who send hurtful messages to these kids who are giving their all for their school, and maybe even your school.
The same, unfortunately, goes for high school recruits. With the emphasis that has been placed on recruiting ever since the birth of the first version of Rivals.com, the entire system has become too big for itself. Recruits are now not only expected to give verbal commitments to their intended schools, but they are expected to release their "top groups" prior to those unofficial verbal commitments, they are expected to represent their school in everything they do on public forums, and they are expected to stick with the verbal commitments they make. It's easy for spectators of the industry to sit back and want to reprimand a kid for not following through on one of these commitments, and yet, those same people are the ones who will clamor for a commitment from a player as early as possible, to start to build their school's brand up as early as possible.
When I initially started writing this post, my goal was to help Penn State fans understand why becoming angry with a high school kid for changing their mind about saying the words "I have committed to Penn State University," is silly and unfair to those kids. The point I have arrived at though, belongs on a much larger scale- this is not something that only Penn State fans need to remember, rather it is something that every fan base needs to be reminded of. These kids aren't just interchangeable pieces for our respective football teams that are built for our viewing pleasure. They are young men. They have goals for their future. They have wants and needs. They have plans for themselves. Most importantly, they can change their minds. They're allowed to do that. People change their minds all the time. These kids are people. It's hard to remember that when you're screaming at your TV while they break down the sideline, or when you're staring at your computer screen and trying to understand how someone from your hometown who would be perfect for your alma mater could possibly have chosen your rival school. If they are going to put in the time and effort to not only fight to bring championships to your school, but to receive a degree of higher learning as well, then the least you can do as a fan is give them the courtesy of remembering who they are at their core.
Surprise commitments will continue to occur. De-commitments will continue to occur. Commitment flips will continue to occur. So instead of getting worked up over who does what, in this out of control train of a recruiting world, take solace in the fact that each and every one of these kids is making a positive decision with their lives to play a game they love while earning a degree.
Finally, I realize that this can be hard to do sometimes, so to close out my thoughts I took the time to prepare a few sentence starters to help you know just what to say for these various scenarios.
For when your school gains a commitment:
Option #1: "Wow! I'm so happy that [insert recruit here] committed to [insert school here]! I can't wait to see him suit up for [insert school here]!
For when a rival school gains a commitment from a recruit you wanted:
Option 1: "Darn it! I was really hoping that [inset recruit here] was going to end up at [insert school here]. Oh well. The good news is that we'll get to see [insert recruit here] play when [insert school here] plays against [insert rival school here]!
Option 2: "Wow! I didn't see that one coming. I still dislike [insert rival school here], but at least they gained another classy individual like [insert recruit here]!
For when a verbally committed recruit flips his commitment to another school:
Option 1: "This certainly isn't the ideal scenario, but I'm glad that [insert recruit here] will still be getting a good education from [insert new school here]. Hopefully [insert coach here] will be able to find another young man to come take the newly vacated spot at [insert school here].
For when a verbally committed recruit, decides to re-open his recruitment:
Option 1: "Well that's not good news. I certainly hope that [insert school here] is able to fix whatever it was that led [insert recruit here] to reconsider his decision. Hopefully everything is still okay with [insert recruit here], and it wasn't a problem with [insert family, academics, relationships, or the law, here].