Here we are in the doldrums of the off-season. With Spring Training months away and the 2012 season so far off that it doesn’t register yet on the radar, what do we as college football fans have to talk about? Well, recruiting of course! Nothing gets the blood boiling like fretting over where some 18 year-old kid is going to go to college, right? Well, the hot topic in recruiting is (and has been for a couple of years now) oversigning. Some people (mainly from the Big 10 it seems) are highly critical of some teams (mainly from the SEC) because of this practice. There are two lines of thought in the criticism of oversigning: 1) it provides an unfair advantage over other teams because oversigning teams bring in a lot more players, and 2) it requires players on scholarship to lose their scholarship to make room for new and better talent. Or a quicker version: It’s not fair and it screws the kids. On the surface these arguments seem like an open and shut case but upon inspection, neither can hold up to scrutiny.
For those unaware, oversigning is the act of a football team signing more players than they have room for. You see, per NCAA rules, no team may sign more than 25 players in any calendar year, or have more than 85 players under scholarship at any given time. How then is oversigning allowed? Easy, it’s in the fine print. If a team signed less than 25 players in 2011, then they can sign more than 25 in 2012, as long as the extra guys enroll early – thus back-counting their signature to fill up the previous class. Likewise, a team can ask a guy to delay his enrollment until the next year and count against the next year’s class numbers – a practice referred to as greyshirting. That explains the 25 per year rule, but what about the 85 rule? How can teams sign more than 85? Well, that is easily explained as well – National signing day is the First Wednesday in February, but the list of scholarship players for each year is not provided to the NCAA until late July/early August (I’m not sure of the exact date). Example: If a team played 2011 with 84 players on scholarship and had 18 exhaust their eligibility/graduate and 2 leave early for the NFL draft, they roll 64 scholarship players over to the next year, providing a recruiting budget of 21 for new signees (without oversigning). However, the team then signs 27 players (with at least 2 enrolling early to get under the yearly 25 limit) which leaves them with 91 committed scholarships for the next year (seemingly six too many!). Over the next 6 months, one of the recent signees fails to qualify, one guy on the team goes on a medical hardship scholarship (no longer counting against the 85) due to injury, three guys announce their transfers to other schools, and one of the recently signed guys delays his enrollment 4 months until the start of the winter quarter/semester. So you see, even though the team seemed to have too many on scholarship, by the time fall practice starts and the (rest of the) new players arrive, they are right on the number. So even though some critics will attempt to make it sound like oversigning is cheating, it is not (and to their credit, the most vocal/informed critics do not make this accusation – though they may insinuate it). It is important to point out that oversigning is not against the rules.
As mentioned above, oversigning critics use one of the two arguments referenced to attack teams that oversign. The purpose of this article is to address these two accusations and the motives behind them. The validity of these arguments is not really the focus of this article (though I may touch on it a little) – this is a subject planned for the next installment of this series. First I’ll address the “unfair” competitive advantage complaint. Critics attempt to discount the accomplishments of oversigning teams because, while they aren’t breaking any rules, they are cheating by using “loopholes” to gain an advantage over other teams. Not coincidentally, it seems that most of these critics come from teams that don’t oversign. The problem with this is that oversigning is not against the rules. It is very much within the guidelines set by the NCAA. Critics characterize it as a loophole, but it isn’t – why else would the letter of intent allow for the student to begin counting anytime within one year of its signing (if not than to allow greyshirting)? These were rules written to allow a school some flexibility in managing its roster once the NCAA began restricting scholarships. Some nationally known journalists have compared the competitive advantage to one guy using three balls in bowling. How unfair!! Ironically, this comparison is dead on correct, just not the way they intended. The correct analogy would be if two guys were bowling, and one guy refused to take the third roll on the tenth frame (should he strike or spare) while his opponent did per the standard rules of the game. Yes, the second guy is at an advantage, but not an unfair one as he is playing by the rules. What we have here (and in oversigning) is one guy who has put himself at a willful disadvantage. As such, I put little to no credence toward cries of unfair advantage. This is not a valid reason to change the rule - because some guys use it and others don’t. The practice is available to all teams so there is nothing unfair about it. As a side note, the Big 10 has extra rules in place to restrict oversigning. Their teams can oversign by up to three players, but must request permission from the conference office and explain how they expect to meet the NCAA limits, this deals mostly with the 85 limit – and now the SEC has a rule in place to limit the number signed each year to no more than 25, though it doesn’t address the 85 limit. These rules put the conference members at a disadvantage to teams outside of their conferences, but it is not an unfair one. If it is a concern to these conference teams, they should lobby their front offices to have these rules removed so that they can compete better, not try to get the NCAA to adopt their rules. If they feel the rule doesn’t hurt their teams, then there should be no complaint against other schools. Simply put, arguing that oversigning teams have an unfair advantage is nothing more than sour grapes about a team or conference that is seemingly dominating college football.
That leaves us with the heart of the matter. The above dealt strictly with the competitive aspect of the rule. At one time, helmet-to-helmet contact was legal. I could make the same argument I made above about whether or not a coach should teach the technique to his players (when it was legal). The obvious problem with that is that it is unethical to coach your players to willfully hurt your opponent to the point that he is irreparably harmed (this is not out-manning your opponent so that he wants to quit; this is specific desire to injure your opponent). That is not a difficult argument to make. Likewise, oversigning opponents have attempted to apply the unethical tag to oversigning. Their reasoning is that when a team oversigns, it must then cut existing players on the roster to make room for the oversigned class. Their concern, they will tell you, is for the poor, defenseless, student-athlete who has his scholarship and future ripped out from under him to make room for someone faster and stronger. They will tell you that it is morally reprehensible for a school to have 12 players leave the program over the summer when the school is oversigned. They will rail against the schools and coaches who run these programs, all the while touting the poor, often under-privileged athlete who has been taken advantage of. These critics condemn oversigning schools for their forced attrition, while praising non-oversigning schools for their ethical approach. And that is where their motives are revealed. From my interactions with oversigning critics, I would estimate that 9 out of 10 of them do not care about the student-athlete, and it is pretty easy to expose this. As I mentioned above, the majority of oversigning critics seem to be from fans of Big 10 conference schools – notably Ohio State. The most famous of these is the author of oversigning.com, a blog dedicated to exposing the evils behind oversigning (as long as it is at an SEC team – preferably Alabama or LSU). Well, I’ve had several conversations with people in the comments at oversigning.com and some OSU-fan sites. You see, OSU doesn’t oversign (except last year and this year, but that is a different story that I’ll do another day). Since the Buckeyes don’t oversign, they have no need to cut players like that evil Alabama coach Nick Saban. They are very excited about their future, as they should be – they secured the services of a top-notch coach who was able to put together one of the top-5 recruiting classes in the country. To add to their excitement, Meyer was able to increase OSU’s stock in a very short period of time, despite the fact that their class was full when he took over. The Buckeyes recruiting class went from mediocre-at-best to the 4th highest ranked class (by Rivals) in the country in little more than a month. It just so happens that during this same time span, no less than 7 (and as many as 10 if you believe Urban’s quotes) players have been removed from Ohio State’s roster. The same fans who cry out against Saban out of concern for the poor athletes who get cast to the curb because of his oversigning can now be seen rejoicing over the achievements of Meyer – neglecting the fact that their class has come at the expense players leaving. Do they care more for the kids in Alabama than their own state? I highly doubt it. So you see, OSU was able to take advantage of the departure of 10 players over a very short amount of time, and use the vacancies to bring in highly-rated talent. These are the very same actions defined as immoral when done in conjunction with oversigning, but is given a complete pass by oversigning critics because it is not oversigning, not because it doesn’t hurt kids. As such, I contend that these critics are not concerned with the well-being of the student-athlete in these cases; instead they simply see an easy way to criticize a hated rival. Were the player the focus of their concern, they would see the actions at OSU in the same light as they do Bama, and call out their own coaches as immoral. Instead, we hear nothing because the plight of the athlete is not their true concern.
So why are you against oversigning? Are you whining about rival teams with too much talent, or are you being intellectually dishonest with yourself thinking it’s because kids get screwed. Perhaps you are the 10% who really feel for the kids – if so, you need to be more vocal about it and focus your efforts on something other than oversigning, because as Urban Meyer has graciously shown us, banning oversigning would have no effect on making things better. Perhaps you are against it for some reason I have not covered here. If so, feel free to let me know – I’ll take it into consideration.
Now there is a lot of information that I have not covered here. As I said before, this article was specifically to address the motives and validity of the claims against oversigning. In my next installment we will discuss the more specific ways critics make their claims and expose the fallacies there.