College Football: Over Signing Gives the Sport a Bad Name

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College Football: Over Signing Gives the Sport a Bad Name
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
NCAA President: Mark Emmert

Each year, in early February, thousands of high school seniors commit to colleges across the nation to play football.

The coaches of these universities make promises to the players’ families and high school coaches to take care of them for the next four years. It is a simple, mutually beneficial relationship. The athlete commits to play football at a school for four years and in return receives a free education, housing and meals.

However, this mutually beneficial relationship does not always end as a fairy tale. Throughout the country, many of the most prestigious college football programs across the country are committing a devious act known as over signing. This is when a school intentionally signs more athletes than they can legally award scholarships. This leaves players across the country in woeful situations.

The problem with over singing is that coaches are breaking promises made to players that are inevitably destroying young athletes’ lives. So it raises the question, should there be restrictions or punishments involved with over signing and does over signing give an advantage to coaches who over sign by allowing them to have the ability mess up on more recruits than their competitors that do not over sign?

This has been an issue that has been debated for over a half-century. In 1956, the Big Ten passed the first official legislation in college football that made it illegal for teams in the conference to over sign. Unfortunately, there have been very few national regulations since then.

Actually, as college football has become more of a big money business, over signing has increased and regulations have become more of suggestions than actual enforceable laws.

Now this topic may not be very familiar to many, but here is it in a nut-shell. Each year, schools are allowed to give 25 scholarships to athletes that commit to their university. This scholarship is supposed to be valid for four years. There is also a rule that states that a football team can have no more than 85 scholarship players on a team at any given time.

When the numbers are added, four years multiplied by 25 players is equal to 100 people on the team at time.

However, this is usually not the problem. Often time’s players will transfer to other schools for more playing time or meet one of the requirements of bylaw 15.3.4.2, which allows a player to be released from scholarship. Those requirements are: renders himself or herself ineligible for competition, fraudulently misrepresents any information on an application, letter of intent, or financial aid agreement, engages in serious misconduct, or voluntarily quits the team.

If a team is signing 25 players a year, then they will generally, but not always, be under the 85 player cap. Unfortunately, it is not overly uncommon for a team to sign more than 25 athletes in a season.  In the last five seasons, there have been 25 teams across the country to sign over the allotted 25 recruits per year on average over the last five years.

If you were a coach, would you over sign athletes?

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The real problem is that the teams sign many more athletes than they can handle. Then they are forced to remove several players from their roster. This is handled in several ways.

As for incoming freshmen, the universities will often “gray-shirt” the athlete. That means the athlete is allowed to practice with the team all season but will not be eligible to play in games and will be fully responsible for paying for all the expenses associated with attending that school. Since this is especially prevalent in major programs, it is likely that those athletes had scholarships to other schools that would have paid all their expenses.

It is simply not fair to break the promise made to recruits, yet it happens every year. This is especially devastating to a large majority of athletes that are impoverished or cannot afford schooling and football is their only way to afford it.

Essentially, a once ideal situation is ruined for many athletes because of over signing. Moreover, schools make space for a large incoming class by cutting veteran players that have underperformed. They will often attempt to qualify this by relating it to bylaw 15.3.4.2, but frankly that is often not the true reason. Again, athletes are losing their scholarships and coaches are breaking promises.

In a different article, again by Andy Staples of SI.com, he explains a specific example of how over signing impacts the lives of athletes.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

"Miles misjudged how many of his academically shaky signees would qualify, and by summer's end, Miles had two more qualified newcomers than he had available scholarships. So Miles had to tell signees Elliott Porter and Cameron Fordham—who had turned down other schools to accept LSU's promise of a football scholarship—that there wasn't room in the class for them. Porter already had been taking classes in Baton Rouge. He already had a dorm room. Fordham accepted an offer to walk on at LSU. Porter instead went to Kentucky on scholarship" (Staples, Oversigning).

In this case, Louisiana State University was the school to break their promise. This had a strong negative impact on the lives of two different athletes. One of them was forced to take on the financial requirements of being a student at LSU to live his dream of playing for them, despite being promised a full-ride scholarship, while the other had to transfer because he could not bear the financial commitment. What were the consequences for the Tigers? A 10-win season and a Cotton Bowl victory.

This is simply more evidence that there needs to be some kind of reform. Ron Morris of the South Carolina explains a few regulations that if put in place could help to solve the issue. His first proposed idea was to allow recruits to sign their letter of intent earlier in the year.

“If prospective athletes could sign letters of intent in August before their senior year, it would ensure they have a scholarship in hand and help programs better deal with the scholarship numbers” (Morris).

The current rules only allow the high school recruits to sign their letter of intent in early February. Because of this, schools are not exactly sure how many players they will receive the following season. Perhaps if they knew exactly how many recruits were definitely going to have, over signing would be less prevalent.

Furthermore, Morris proposes another rule change that would prevent teams from avoiding the player caps. “The practice of 'grayshirting' and bringing prospective athletes to college early for the spring semester of what would be their senior year of high school should be abolished. Both practices are for the express purpose of skirting over signing rules” (Morris).

Both of these currently legal practices are allowing schools to bring in more players than their 25 scholarships allow. If they were removed from college football, as proposed, it would make harboring extra athletes far more difficult.

The biggest problem with rule the changes is that they could reduce the competition level and thus the profitability. If the NCAA has shown one thing over the last decade is that they are all about the money. Honestly, I do not think that the NCAA is willing to risk any potential profit losses to protect the players that are misplaced because of over signing each year.

Seven of the top 12 schools that over signed are in the South Eastern Conference (Staples, SEC). This conference is also generally known for being the most competitive and talented in the country. So it then relates directly back to the question posed about schools receiving a competitive advantage by over signing.

This is definitely strong support for the pro side in this argument. Five of the SEC schools listed in the top 12 over signing programs were also among the top 25 in the entire nation last season, including the eventual national champion, the Auburn Tigers. 

Common logic would be perhaps the strongest support for this argument. If one has more objects to manipulate, whether materials to build a house or athletes to create a winning team, they will have a better chance of eventually having the better product.

In an article by a clearly biased Ohio State fan, but nevertheless well informed Tony Gerdeman, he explains how many inter-conference games have been won by the team that signed more athletes.

“The Big Ten, to their detriment, chooses not to engage in such cutthroatery, and yes, it is to their detriment. Their record against the SEC is even in bowl games of late, but imagine if they had 22 extra players to pore through per team. Do you really think they wouldn't have made the most of their ‘do-overs’?” (Gerdeman).

His claim is simply a logical approach supported by factual evidence. He uses those statistics to show that the schools in the Big Ten Conference hold themselves to a higher ethical standard than in the SEC in this case. And yet those teams continue to win.

Overall, over signing will continue to be a black eye on the sport until stronger regulation is enforced. The NCAA need to stop caring about popularity and profits and start protecting the players.

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