Oversigning is not the Problem; Lying is the Problem
The issue of oversigning in Division I college football is a complex beast. There is room for reasonable people to have a wide array of views and it is even possible for two people to disagree without one of them being unethical or immoral1. The problem with the current debate — at least so far as the internet is concerned — is that a great deal of nuance is overlooked and people (even those on the same side) often talk past each other.
The key fact that has to be understood before any real discussion can begin is that scholarships are, by rule, limited to one year, renewable obligations2. A school cannot, even if it wants to, promise a recruit a four or five year scholarship. The default mode of operation, however, is renewal and there is a deadline by which the school must notify athletes who were on scholarship the previous year that it will not be renewed3. The NCAA also requires institutional hearings for student athletes whose scholarships aren’t renewed and has some regulations as to who may adjudicate that hearing4.
The chief allegation often made by folks like Oversigning.com and Brian Cook is that oversigning is immoral or unethical because, in the words of Cook, if the numbers don’t work out, “someone gets it right in the ass“. As you might suspect, it’s not that simple.
Okay, okay. If we’re being fair and reasonable, we have to admit that, in some respects, it is that simple. Schools cannot (and do not) keep more than 85 players on scholarship. If only 15 graduate and 25 come in, 10 scholarships have to come from somewhere. This point is indisputable and non-controversial.
One question is whether or not coaches even need the overage. “Need” is a funny word. Clearly some teams do reasonably well without it, and it’s obvious that if everyone followed that system, the playing field would be level. It also means, however, that coaches are going to take fewer chances on edge cases. The students who may not qualify are now an even greater liability to a program’s recruiting class. Do we really want to construct a scenario in which some already disadvantaged kids get another disadvantage? The Big Ten fans like to tout their superiority and some even look down their noses at schools recruiting players who aren’t great in the classroom. Why? Is the suspicion that those players, if not for football recruiting, would be taking their academic progression seriously? It seems more likely that, without football as a reason to get the grades and stay in school (or continue on with college), they’ll just ditch school it entirely. Are we really in a better position as a country if fewer kids have a shot to go to college?
Still, currently the rules allow for an overage. Those scholarships can come from only two places: more players can leave the team or fewer can come in. The mechanics of those two options differ.
Trimming a Class with Grayshirting
One easy way to make the numbers work is to grayshirt some of the players. This is a punt. The player doesn’t come in until the spring semester and they count against next year’s numbers. This practice is vilified by the usual groups who carp about oversigning, but understand that it is nothing more than a school telling a player that they do not have room for the player and will make room for him next year if he wants to stick around and wait it out. That’s it. No more, no less. Again, not inherently unethical. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that does happen on occasion that a player does not know what position he’s in and by the time he realizes he might have to grayshirt, his options are so limited or unappealing that he feels like he has no choice but to wait around5. A strong argument can be made that springing this information on a player in this way is unethical, as it can deprive them of opportunities that might be better for them.
On the other hand, if a coach is up-front with a recruit from the very beginning that he might have to grayshirt if more players sign and qualify than are expected, is that an ethical problem? The student has been made aware of the possibilities and has made an informed decision to take the risk of having to grayshirt. They might make a decision they later regret, that is true, and along the way they are probably being told by a coach that they don’t expect there to be a problem.
In order to catch the dishonest folks, we probably just need to prevent signing more kids than you have room under the 85 cap, right? Maybe not. What if, instead, when a school accepts an NLI that could put them over the 85 limit, they are required to notify the player in writing who is now 86th on the list? You could include with that, if you wanted, the requirement that that player be permitted to rescind his NLI and sign with another school. What does that do? It forces coaches to be honest with players early in the process so that the letter isn’t a surprise. It also makes the situation clear as early as possible.
Forcing Players Out
The other source for new scholarships is by reducing the number of counters. This is an area in which there’s a great deal more nuance and personal preference. A reasonable person — even one vehemently opposed to oversigning — must recognize that there are ethical reasons to revoke a player’s scholarships and ethical ways to do it. Because such reasons and methods exist, one cannot leap directly from “need to get rid of existing scholarshipped players” to “unethical behavior”.
Medical scholarships often come under fire as a way to “hide” undesirable players. Ignored in that discussion is that players may simply be cut outright. There’s no need, save for the PR of it, to move a kid to medical scholarship versus just cutting him. Further, opponents of medical scholarships often behave as though there’s some magical line between players who can play and those who can’t play. In reality, injuries are a continuum and they range from having no impact on a player’s ability to leaving the player unable to walk. Between those two extremes, there are places where the player can still play, but can no longer do so at the level required for his team. A team can simply cut this player, if they choose. The medical scholarship does nothing except provides this player with a free education. Suggesting that medical scholarships are somehow unethical means either claiming that, along with the financial aid, the team has also promised the player the right to participate or it means that the primary concern here is one of competitive edge with other schools.
Another option, as alluded to above, is simply to cut players who are not performing. It is easy to feel sympathy for a player who works hard, does everything the coaches ask, does it with a great attitude, but simply cannot be the player the coaches want, so he is left out of the system because some young player is seen as having a greater upside. That is a sympathetic situation. Given the one-year nature of the scholarships, however, I don’t think there are good arguments for it being unethical.
The bottom line is that scholarships come with conditions. Many academic scholarships require you maintain a certain GPA or class rank. There are law schools who offer scholarships to more than half of all incoming students that then require the student to stay above the middle of the class in order to keep the scholarship. They are, essentially, oversigning their academic scholarships, but nobody is coming to the aid of those poor, mistreated law students. That’s not because the practice is unknown, but because the students know what bargain they’re getting into: fail to perform, lose your scholarship. Likewise with GPA requirements. Students who work hard, do everything their professors ask, and do so with a good attitude can still come up short of the GPA required to keep their aid.
If we’re looking for rule changes to make these situations more fair to the students, maybe we should do away with the requirement that a student athlete sit out a year of competition if they were cut or if their scholarship wasn’t renewed. That would not prevent them from being cast of for lack of performance, but it would reduce the penalty they currently endure for it.
Regardless, I have yet to hear a convincing argument that the Big Ten method of roster management is the only — or even the best — solution to the problems, and I think that’s largely because the primary impetus behind pushing it is to eliminate the Big Ten’s competitive disadvantage, not to help the players.