Recruiting athletes for collegiate athletics has become a multi-million, if not billion dollar business. Instead of treating these athletes as the future adults of tomorrow, they are treated like commodities: how much money can he or she bring to our programs? What can they offer me? As a result, the process in a young athlete’s life has begun much earlier than in previous decades. It use to be that a sophomore or a junior in high school was at a prime age for recruitment. But now, there are 13- or 14-year-olds verbally committed to colleges. To put that into context, they have not even hit high school yet let alone puberty. Many coaches see something in them and want to lure them to their programs, often creating a sense of false hope or security. If the athlete gets injured, burned out or cannot handle the academics, for instance, the coach can easily dispose of them (but the reverse cannot be said for the athlete who wants to transfer out). As in the movie Hoop Dreams, Coach Pingatore was quick to recruit and demonstrate his fatherly nature towards his athletes, but also quick to move on once a place had been made vacant. And this was just in high school basketball. A quote that stuck out in the film: “One goes out the door, and another one comes in the door.” To many coaches, that is all their athletes are - commodities in an ever-turning revolving door.
After college, I coordinated U.S. Soccer’s training camps for their youth national teams and got exposure to this dynamic, from collegiate coaches. These players were the creme-de-la-creme in the sport and highly sought after by the top programs in the country. I was appalled at how much pressure is put on these young kids to make such huge life decisions at just 13, 14 or 15 years of age. As I spent nearly 18 hours each day with each age bracket for a week at a time, I got to know their personalities and could tell that they were not in any place to determine what schools they wanted to attend, what sort of athletic programs they wanted to be a part of, what sort of major they would be interested in years from now - they were normal young teenagers just trying to get a grip on what it meant to be growing up. I got to know the players fairly well and would communicate with them years down the line, to receive phone calls asking for advice about if they had made the right decision and whether not they should transfer.
The ethical issue is two-fold. First, the athletes have not matured physically enough and therefore, the player they are at that young age may not be the same as five years down the line. The pressure of having to maintain a commitment, and a projected level of performance, to that university often leads to injuries before even entering the program. Second, the athletes have not matured mentally and emotionally enough to even know if they want to play that sport in college, or if they want to play a sport at all, let alone where or at what level. It puts an unbalanced emphasis on athletics over academics.