- - Wednesday, February 1, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION

The college football season kicked off Wednesday, at least the portion that delivers a fresh set of rankings to devour. Thousands of high school seniors played their role in feeding the machine, sometimes on live TV, by putting pen to paper for the spectacle that is National Signing Day.

ESPN scheduled live coverage of a dozen players announcing their commitments over the course of the day, from four-star offensive tackle Stephan Zabie (UCLA) in the morning, to five-star defensive tackle Marvin Wilson to Florida State in the late-afternoon. The network also placed reporters at 16 schools for live reports, in which no coach was displeased with his haul of incoming workers.

Every school’s class is No. 1! Each coach should receive a participation trophy.

The process is disturbing on a number of fronts: the glorification of high school students who play football; the commercialization of college sports; the overemphasis on athletic interests versus academic pursuits; the reinforcement of a grossly unfair, multi-billion dollar system.

I can’t blame the 18-year-olds for being excited as most of them make the biggest decision of their lives to date. Graduating from high school and selecting an institution of higher education can be exceedingly stressful. The ability to finally make your choice official has to be a relief.

Adults are the problem, preying on the emotions of immature teens, providing them with an inflated sense of self-worth and dubious definition of commitment.

National Signing Day is a mere formality in many cases, as the majority of top recruits make verbal pledges much earlier and simply follow through. Of course, that’s after a series of decommits, flips and pulled offers that makes a mockery of the exercise.

There’s even a tool to follow which players said one thing and backed out later, often after persuasive arguments from second-guessing rival coaches. The decommitment tracker tells you, for instance, that five-star wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey decommitted from Ohio State on Jan. 11 and subsequently received offers from Penn State, Ole Miss and Michigan State before signing with Nebraska on Wednesday.

Elsewhere on the site you find that two-star linebacker Ryan Dickens committed to UConn last summer and decommitted on Jan. 16. But there’s no indication that the move was involuntary, after Randy Edsall returned for a second stint as the Huskies’ head coach and pulled Dickens’ seven-month old offer. Likewise, two-star “athlete” D.J. Charles is listed as committing to Florida Atlantic on Oct. 18, only to change his mind in December.

Turns out that incoming coach Lane Kiffin didn’t share the previous regime’s interest in Charles’ services.

There are players in Dickens’ and Charles’ situation every year, left scrambling to find another school when a new coach comes in or the old one rescinds an offer. But the most common cases involve teens being teens and opting out of non-binding verbal agreements.

Shed no tears for the coaches when a top recruit flips. A kid has one shot to make the right choice while each coach whispers sweet nothings to approximately 25 other players. College football isn’t the world’s oldest profession, but there are similarities in the way a coach woos young prospects to fill his stable.

One of the best at the game is Alabama’s coach, who invites wide-eyed teens to his home that measures 8,759-sq. feet and sits on nearly two acres. “It was kind of like a movie; everything was in slow motion,” four-star offensive lineman Jedrick Wills told ESPN for “An Illustrated Guide to the Recruiting Visit at Nick Saban’s House.”

According to the article, Saban shows off his Mercedes Benz AMG, a fleet of golf carts and jet skis and a recruiting lounge replete with a big-screen TV, a ping-pong table and a pool table. He also takes them into his office. “The first thing that really caught my eyes were a lot of diamonds, just shining in my face,” four-star safety Daniel Wright told ESPN. “First thing (Saban) said, ‘Oh yeah, we love jewelry here.’ All you could see was a lot of diamonds.”

Saban and his peers are paid several million dollars each year to lure the best talent and it keep away from the competition. When top players consider another school, it’s the coach’s job to show the young men why they’re making a mistake.

But the real error here (at least one of them) is asking for “commitments” before recruits are allowed to make official visits. There’s a move underway to change the system, adding a new signing period in December to make the process less stressful. I’d love a provision that re-opened the process for committed recruits when coaches are fired. That would give the players more time to find another school.

In any case, there’s something a bit creepy about the ordeal. I’m happy for the kids if they’re happy.

But they feel too much like pawns in a game of high-stakes chess.

Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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