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National Signing Day 2014: Yearly Spectacle Exemplifies Insanity of Process

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National Signing Day 2014: Yearly Spectacle Exemplifies Insanity of Process
Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Hello. Are you an 18-year-old child who has been fawned over by middle-aged men since before you were able to drive? Are you on the precipice of making one of the five biggest decisions of your life, choosing to spend at least the next three years at an institution that will rake in millions off your name and pay you pittance in return? Do you like seeing your big, beaming face on television?

Well, then, you might just be a recruit on the precipice of making his decision during Wednesday's national signing day for high school football players. A majority of the nation's top recruits have already picked their destinations. Wednesday will merely be signing on the dotted line with their letter of intent, making them contractually obligated to their commitment to Tuscaloosa, Tallahassee, what have you.

For the stragglers, though, this will probably be the biggest day of their young lives. The NCAA's signing period lasts until April 1, but nearly every undecided player you've remotely heard of will make his decision on the first day possible. No fewer than 13 of those recruits will announce their decision live on one of the ESPN family of networks.

This, of course, is patently insane and the epitome of the toxic recruiting process.

Picking a college is one of the handful or so most important decisions of a person's life. Picking a career path, picking a mate, having a child, choosing a college. College isn't just three or four years of your life. It's a determinant that helps shape your future, where most choose that career path. Some find their future spouse, and nearly everyone experiences a massive personal growth.

My four years were spent at Penn State, and I often find myself lost in thought about what would change had I gone to any of my other choices. 

Because it's still relatively fresh in my mind (I graduated college in 2012), I still remember agonizing over the decision. Touring campuses, studying pre-law programs (whoops), spending hours on end in cars with my mother.

Tour guides consistently sell potential freshmen on the best amenities rather than building an accurate representation of the campus. Lookit the nicest buildings, view the best facilities and talk to the "cool" professor who just "chills" during his office time, bro.

And keep in mind I had exactly zero college athletics prospects. I was just a dumb schlub with a decent SAT score. 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The decision these young men make on Wednesday is far more important than mine, their process far more extravagant and the implications of their choice infinitely farther reaching.

Players of this caliber aren't just choosing schools. They're choosing coaches. They're choosing workout facilities. They're choosing to surround themselves with the elders with whom they have the best relationship, ones they hope will help lead them to the NFL promised land.

College football is a job—especially for prospects of this level. It's a transaction. These kids give their body for three, four or even five years, and they walk away with a degree, a professional football contract or both. 

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

"I started hearing the same thing from every school," Dalvin Cook, a 5-star running back enrolled at Florida State, told ESPN's Mitch Sherman. "I had to be like, 'Hey, it's a business.' I decided I had to do what was best for me, not them."

So in that way, it makes some sense that television networks would look to commoditize national signing day. It's like hundreds of little versions of The Decision all wrapped in one. And, say what you will about The Decision, but it was a damned glorious financial success.

Collegiate sports is a broken, corrupt racket slowly being exposed as our nation's longest running fraud. Players are getting tired of making a fraction of a fraction of what their coaches are making and are starting to raise enough of a fuss that change will actually take place. Northwestern football players' attempt to unionize is only the start of this process.

But until the business of college football truly begins being treated as such—a business—the recruiting process in general and national signing day specifically is a spectacle that highlights the dichotomy between the false narrative and the reality. 

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Coaches, equipped with travel budgets the size of small nations, gallivant across the country to convince teenagers to sign up for a multi-year, low-paid internship. They send them letters in the mail, rack up ungodly phone bills sending tongue-face emojis via text and send secret Snapchats of the cutest girls on campus. (OK, they don't really do that—at least I don't think.)

This process starts at impossibly young ages, with these kids being brainwashed from their first passing camp that State University Tech is the right campus for them. Remember Dave Telep's ESPN Insider piece from 2011 that highlighted all the ways college basketball coaches circumvent NCAA rules by finding loopholes? It's no different—and perhaps even worse—in football.

The NCAA rules are mostly stupid and deserve circumvention. But Wednesday's national signing day fiasco make sense in only the most sinister of ways—it's one of the select few things these players get out of the process.

A better campus tour than your average high school senior. A few free meals here and then. A full scholarship during a time when average student loan debt is nearing $30,000. And a stupid little press conference where they throw on a hat and people start cheering for no other reason other than that's what they've been conditioned to do. 

That's what national signing day is. It's a perk. And it's a curse. Because what these coaches and television networks and recruiting evaluators continually fail to tell these kids is that, once the cameras are off, the fun is gone.

You're no longer the beacon of light that is the key to your new coach's national championship dreams. You're just another player. Your star rating does nothing to guarantee stardom, but it'll damn sure be used as a criticism in the event you fail to live up to expectation. 

National signing day? Yeah, that's yours. After that? You're just another cog in the college football machine, a fungible empty jersey whose soul purpose is raking in millions for others.

But, you know, good luck with the most important decision of your young life and such. 

 

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