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Monday, January 27, 2014

Sports Contracts with Middle Schoolers

NCAA_Women's_LacrosseToday's New York Times has a long story about college coaches in non-money sports, like soccer and lacrosse, recruiting middle schoolers.  Like most intersections between amatuer athletics and money, this phenomenon is bad for everyone.  According to the Times, the new trend is an unintended consequence of Title IX.  There is lots of scholarship money chasing relatively few talented athletes, especially female athletes, in the non-money sports.  As a result, players of promise get snatched up very early, so now schools offer scholarship money to eighth graders in the hope that they will commit to play for them when they go to college.  

The result is bad for everyone for obvious reasons.  Coaches cannot really predict which 13-14 year olds will be All-American athletes.  Even if athletic potential is there, injuries, loss of interest or other factors (e.g., life outside of sports) can intervene.  The dynamic hurts young athletes because it forces them to focus on one sport very early, playing that sport year round and increasing the likelihood of injury.  Then, many athletes recruited in middle school are not top players in college, so they spend their college years as frustrated bench warmers, has-beens at the age of 18.  The coaches hate it as well.  They've got better things to do with their time than endless telephone converstions with middle schoolers, and they hate the dynamic of having to commit to student athletes before they are confident of the students' potential.

But it's actually hard to have that much sympathy for the coaches, since this is a world they have created by exploiting loopholes in NCAA rules.  They could voluntarily self-regulate or simply work at getting a reputation for being a school that only accepts students who arrive at a particular sports program as a result of more mature deliberation.  Perhaps it won't work and then a school might have to suffer the ignominy of not having, for example, a top ten women's soccer team.  The horrors.  University administrators should focus more an graduation rates, employment rates and student well-being and less on rankings.  

But the reason I am posting about this is of course the relevant contacts issues.  The Times is silent on how the minors bind themselves to particular universities.  Since these middle schoolers cannot bind themselves contractually, there must be parents involved.  Still, I wonder what the remedy is if a student athlete decides not to attend the university to which she has pre-committed.  Of course, the student will sacrifice her scholarship, but if a recruited soccer player decides that she wants to play at a different school, will it really be  impossible for her to find a school that will offer her a scholarship when she is a senior?  Given that the coaches know that they will make mistakes in recruiting 14-year-olds, they ought to hold a few scholarships in reserve so that they can make offers to late bloomers.  

But students may be unwilling to renege on their commitments.  As the closing line of the Times article suggests, students may be happy to simply be done with the process, even though they know that they are pretty poor predictors of what they will want for themselves in four years' time.  The disservice we do to student athletes is obvious.  But the process also disserves colleges and universities.  There are lots of reasons to go to college, but the chief reason for almost all students ought to be educational.  By forcing to middle schoolers to pick a school based on a sport which will almost certainly never be anything more than a hobby for them, we present a distorted picture of the purposes of higher education -- or perhaps we simply contribute to a realistic picture of higher education which is in fact a disfigurement of education.

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