As a fan of college football I have closely followed the recruiting process over the last four to five years.
This year a truly sad and strange story emerged from the commotion.
It may even be the most bizarre sports story I have ever heard.
Last Wednesday, February 6th, was College Football Signing Day, the occasion on which young football recruits make official their post-secondary futures by sending in letters of intent to their schools of choice.
Kevin Hart, an unheralded offensive lineman from Nevada, met newspaper reporters and local sports media in the packed Fernley High School gymnasium to announce that he would be attending the University of California instead of his other short-listed school, Oregon.
Local residents were ecstatic.
There had never been a Division I football player from that area of Nevada, and Hart was about to go to a big-time school on a full-ride scholarship. The night was a memorable one.
“I’ve been here eighteen years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” one police officer said of the ovation Hart received from adoring friends, fellow students, family, and neighbors.
California message boards called the young player a “huge sleeper recruit,” assured he would work very hard to earn a spot on the roster.
Hart explained why he was going to Cal, telling local writers, “They really won me over, Coach Tedford (Cal's head football coach) and I talked a lot and the fact that the head coach did most of the recruiting gave me kind of a personal experience.”
One problem, though.
Coach Tedford claims that he has never even heard of Kevin Hart. Oregon’s head coach Mike Belotti says the same. Both have clearly stated that they never recruited Hart, let alone offered him a scholarship.
Police officers and investigators met Hart at his Nevada home where Hart expressed concern that an impersonator had caused the trouble. Police asked for names, for any contact information that would help them to track down the alleged middleman. Hart provided a name, but as for additional information, well, he had none.
And that is because there was no impersonator, there was no scholarship, no recruitment. The whole town’s excitement was driven by nothing but Kevin Hart’s own personal fantasy.
Hart concocted the entire story. He’d never been recruited by any school, and certainly not by any as prestigious as Cal and Oregon. Hart had previously told reporters that he was narrowing down a list that included Cal, Oregon, Illinois, Nevada, and Oklahoma State. Lies, all of them.
In a statement released to the press Hart explained, "I wanted to play D-I ball more than anything. When I realized that wasn't going to happen, I made up what I wanted to be reality.”
But what had started out as a small lie to his high school coaches was spun several times over to envelope the entire school, the town, the region, Hart’s whole life.
What now stands as the most publicized hoax in recruiting history means that instead of going on to play small college football, Hart will try to piece together a fractured future.
The story is definitely bizarre, but also quite sad.
The 18-year-old kid certainly bears most of the responsibility. He flat-out lied to hundreds of people, including several police officials.
But the sports media needs to be held accountable for this mania, too. They have recreated signing day as a huge, high-pressured event. And while recruiting is important, covering it to this extent is not. What is expected of young players is already, in many cases, unreasonable.
Highly-touted prospect Terrelle Pryor, a duel-threat quarterback from Pennsylvania, has yet to announce his destination. Recruiting analysts think this decision may significantly alter the future of Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, or Oregon. But as good as Pryor might become, he still has yet to play a college down, throw a college pass, or even attend his senior prom.
Recruiting is, essentially, overblown, overstated, and over-hyped. These are high school seniors choosing where to go to college. The whole process should be looked upon as little more than that.
But recruiting magazines like Rivals and Scout have characterized this as a life-or-death enterprise by throwing kids in front of millions of people and telling them to make decisions about their future. Grown men with children of their own in high school and college endlessly fret about a five-star prospect's college decision.
Some young players aren’t quite good enough for that level, however, so they make it all up because they’ve been raised to privilege recognition above all else. They think recognition makes them matter.
But it doesn’t. Press attention doesn't build a better college athlete. In fact, the opposite may be true.
And the longer the media goes without realizing this, the more stories like Kevin Hart there will be, and the sadder the stories of players neglecting passion for lauded acceptance.