How the NCAA Can Fix Youth Athletics

The NCAA can no longer ignore their responsibility as an education-based athletics organization to advocate for and promote human development.

Bashing the NCAA is in vogue, and it’s not hard to see why. Every keyboard warrior on the internet feels it’s their duty to self-righteously assault them. They point to the billionaire boosters, the million-dollar coaches, and the multi-million-dollar surpluses in many athletic programs. They harp about fairness and the sometimes-questionable value of the athletes’ education.

But these issues are not what concerns me. Where I take issue is the absolute disregard for the NCAA’s role in American youth athletic development. Whether they like it or not, what they do is deeply impactful in these realms.

The insidious destruction of what was once a great youth athletic climate has rippled into each household. Early specialization has become the norm, along with year-round play. Colleges are recruiting at entirely inappropriate ages and in increasingly manipulative manners. These practices are ruining the development of the large majority who will never play college sports.

While these problems may not all be explicitly caused by the NCAA, only they have the power to broadly affect these negative trends.

Recruiting Children for Adult Decisions

To be fair, the product the NCAA puts out is phenomenal. College sports are beloved in this country because they are an incredible spectacle. Many schools have fantastic physical development programs, and do an amazing job coaching and keeping their athletes healthy. It is popular to criticize, but there is no doubt they are doing some things right.

But there are huge issues to address that will never make it on SportsCenter, like the insanity of high school freshmen verbally committing to colleges. They (and their parents) will eagerly talk about what school they’ve committed to play ball for, but what about their education? Most seniors in high school are woefully unqualified to decide what path will be most fruitful for their continuing education and professional careers, so how is it that we think freshman can make such decisions, just because they might be decent at a sport?

Such a mindset ignores the other 75% of their lives that they’ll still have to live after college athletics are over if they even get to play. The NCAA themselves is happy to tell you that the vast majority of their athletes are going pro in something other than sports. But are those schools recruiting 14-year-olds asking them what occupations they are interested in, and pitching how good their program for that field is? Do they even offer the major the kid might be interested in?

Of course, that question assumes that a freshman has the life experience or maturity to have any clue how to answer those questions. What if at 17, they are exposed to a subject or occupation that radically changes what they want to do with their life? What if they get dramatically better (or worse) at their sport over the next four years, or decide to change sports entirely?

What if the coach that sweet-talked them into the commitment isn’t even there anymore? And what about team culture? Ideally, an incoming player would make a pick after meeting and seeing the team chemistry of the upperclassmen. As Joel Klatt says, “you don’t commit to places, you commit to people,” and 14-year-olds have very few tools to make decisions about what type of people they want to be surrounded by.

While parents and select coaches bear some responsibility for this state of affairs, the ultimate authority on recruiting rules is the NCAA, which means the buck stops with them. 

How College Sports Scuttle High School Teams

The effects of such early recruiting reach beyond the individual athlete. The ripple effect extends to teams when some players with three seasons left are getting contradictory instructions from high school and college coaches. “Come to summer workouts with your team,” says one. “I want you on our program,” says the other.

Then the confused kid comes back to me and says, “My college coach wants me to do this program. Can you show me how to clean and jerk?” I tell them, yes, but it will take about three months to do right. More for most freshmen. First, we have to clean up that overhead mobility. Then we’ll dial in the deadlift, the front squat, and the press. Then fill in all those pieces, with a skilled, disciplined eye, and patience for perfect practice.

It’s worse for the sports coaches trying to get athletes to work on behalf of a team while having their message undercut by “my college coach.” I’ve seen college coaches tell athletes they’ll be playing a different position, and need to be practicing that. So the high school sophomore goes to the park the night before a game to practice the position they think they’ll play in college. After a week of practice and games, the residual fatigue catches up, and they hurt themselves on some routine play. I wish I was making this up.

Colleges Are Laughing at the Rulebook

NCAA recruiting regulations provide little more than plausible deniability for the parties who are actually responsible for these issues. The rampant system of workarounds to NCAA rules are obvious to any onlooker.

On paper, the rules make some sense. For most sports in the NCAA, the only contacts allowed prior to an athlete’s junior year are questionnaires and camp brochures. Off-campus contact is not allowed at all, until July 1 before the athlete’s junior year. Telephone calls, electronic correspondence, and other recruiting materials are not allowed until September 1 of their junior year. Official campus visits are not allowed until the opening day of classes of the athlete’s senior year.

Doesn’t this mean those high school freshmen are just lying about their commitments? Not at all. Those camp brochures bring the athletes to the coaches, where they get to see firsthand who is performing well. They then talk to the target athlete’s select, or travel ball, or AAU coach and let them know they’d like to hear from the player. This is technically illegal because relaying information through a third party is considered a contact, but the enforcement here is practically non-existent. The athlete’s parent then calls the coach or program and sets up an unofficial campus visit. These visits are completely legal, as long as the family pays all expenses. This is where it gets somewhat ambiguous. Usually, specific scholarship amounts are not discussed, and the terms of a commitment are handled in a rather cryptic style. But the suggestion of possibilities is usually enough for the athlete and their family to lose all measure of judgment and give their verbal commitment.

Who would blame the kid? They probably just can’t wait to tell their friends they’ve already committed to a well-known university. How are they supposed to keep a clear head with an offer from a conference powerhouse? Then it becomes a race with their peers. By age 15 or 16, many athletes are just so relieved to get an offer that they commit immediately. Particularly in female sports, to have not committed by the end of your sophomore year is to kiss Division 1 college athletics goodbye.

Recruiting Reforms

How does this get fixed? The NCAA must unequivocally ban any discussion, by any means, at any venue, of any future possibilities between college coaches and athletes, or their families or current coaches, until their junior year. They must also ban any commitments prior to a senior year. There should not even be the illusion that an athlete could know what college they were going to play for before their senior year of high school.

It’s not as if a player’s chances of being recruited are diminished by these changes. In fact, they would allow everyone, players, and coaches alike, to work from better understandings. Coaches would have a fuller body of work to look at, and players would have a chance to mature and gain a bit more perspective, as well as a more accurate image of what the school might look like when they get there.

These changes might help stop year-round, single-sport play, at least for 14-16-year-olds, who tend to be most hurt by the overspecialization. Without the possibility of early recruitment, there would be less incentive to focus on one sport.

I’m not the first to call for such changes. Division 1 lacrosse recently made a similar rule change that prohibits any contact with players before September of their junior year. That might sound drastic, but if the rules are enforced swiftly and severely, a degree of sanity might return. Perhaps athletics could again become a positive, values-driven bastion that is more about teams and sacrificing for a common goal than personal promotion. That ethos is more necessary now than ever.

The pressure and expectation that is ruining youth athletics would evaporate if the NCAA chose some crucial, yet simple reforms. They should be more restrictive of how and in what time periods sports can recruit. The rules on evaluations and contacts vary from sport to sport. For some reason, volleyball allows 80 evaluations, which has contributed to the insanity of the club volleyball scene.

The NCAA should determine a period of time that is at least four consecutive months where any evaluation at all is absolutely illegal. Even video taken during these times of year should be off-limits, to encourage kids to take a much-needed offseason. This still leaves ample time for scouts to recruit while not within their own season.

Let Kids Be Part of Their Families

Another trend the NCAA must move to counter is the expectation of massive expenditures of time and money by whole families. Smaller evaluation windows help, but more is needed.

I have football players who desperately need training right now for their upcoming season. This training reduces their injury risk while preparing them for the specific physiological demands of a grueling four-month season. Unfortunately, a sizable chunk of the team has missed most of my workouts, because their travel ball teams are in Arizona this week, Colorado last week, and Florida the week before. They believe that if they want to get recruited, they must play on these ridiculously expensive travel ball teams and go to these far away places.

This atmosphere is hurting families and players alike, and not just in terms of time and money. Families should have the chance to have their own vacation in the summers, instead of carting their kid all over the country. Kids should be exposed to experiences that broaden their worldview; that might even change their mind about pursuing athletics in college altogether. They might want the option to play another sport, or join a club that does community service or build robots, or whatever else kids might do, but they can’t. All these exposures that might have opened doors to passionate careers and different perspectives are shut off in the mad chase for a college team slot, and the student’s development becomes increasingly narrow.

The NCAA has the bully pulpit to counteract these problems. They could speak out against things like recruiting services, which coaches don’t use, but parents are constantly asking me about. Currently, there is nowhere on the NCAA website where prudent advice is offered to parents and families who just don’t know how to make decisions about this odd world of college recruiting. The NCAA should be the authority in advising parents on responsible recruiting and playing practices. They could help mitigate this unhealthy culture by actively promoting a long term athletic development model.

It’s Time for the NCAA to Step Up

Here are the fundamental truths of the situation:

  • Since college athletes, overwhelmingly, won’t play professionally, college should prepare them for the rest of their life.
  • Sometimes, perhaps often, people change between age 14 and 22.
  • Sometimes, perhaps often, coaches and team cultures change over an 8-year span.
  • Young athletes are better athletes, more well-rounded people, less burnt out, and physically healthier when they don’t play year-round, and have the opportunity to play multiple sports.
  • A high school team should be able to play sports for the immediate joy of it, without every practice and game under the cloud of personal promotion.

The NCAA can no longer ignore their responsibility as an education-based athletics organization to advocate for and promote human development. They have an obligation to adjust and redirect the unhealthy trends in college recruiting. These trends are damaging high school athletics, are driving down participation in youth sports, and are creating an environment that promotes early specialization and year-round play. These have been responsible for rampant overuse injuries and widespread burnout. The NCAA, more than anyone else, has the ability to change this culture, and so they must.