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College Football Recruitment: The Rich Get Richer

Football is “America’s Game”. Its pinnacle is the NFL. Students of the game will already know that there is an element of egalitarianism to the sport. The land of rugged individualism has embraced a league with (whisper this next bit) socialist principles. If it’s free market economics you’re looking for, then the college game is the place to be. And nowhere is more cut-throat than college football recruitment.

The Draft

I know many people, some of them self-avowed socialists, challenge the interpretation that the NFL has socialism at its heart. The NFL Draft is an incredible spectacle to raise the curtain of the next season, but it seems to embrace the redistribution of footballing wealth. Draft picks are awarded in line with the previous year’s record. From each according to his ability…

A close friend of mine (a proud democratic socialist with absolutely no affinity for the sport) does not consider the NFL Draft to be socialism, but a reward for failure. I’m sure he will find kindred spirits on this point with the most ardent defenders of the free market. When a team “tanks” for the franchise’s supposed saviour, it cheats the system.

Draft capital is traded between (supposedly) rational actors. Ultimately, a delicate balance between two contrasting world views is maintained.

The Rooney Rule

The Rooney Rule was introduced in 2003, and expanded in 2009 and 2020. It was designed to improve the social and ethnic diversity of NFL coaching staff. At the heart of its introduction was a desire for greater equality of opportunity.

The representation of BAME Head Coaches has improved in the two decades since its inception, but not by much. Change has been painstakingly slow.

The Rooney Rule has its detractors. You know the type, the “appoint the best man for the job” crowd. In a free market, regulation would be absent. The state (in this case the NFL) has intervened in the name of social justice.

College Football

If it’s an unfettered free market you’re after, then step into the world of college football recruitment. All FBS schools have just 85 full scholarships they can award. Beyond that, it’s every school for itself. At the moment, the wealth is showing little sign of trickling down (if you got the Reaganomics reference there, give yourself a pat on the back).

Scouting teams scour the state (and country) for the best talent they can coax to their programs. NFL Draft prospects have little say of where they will start their professional careers. Unless they’re Eli Manning. High school graduates? They hold all the cards. What results in college football recruitment is a free for all.

Schools make their offers, and the young athletes decide. The next time they will have the same level of influence in the direction of their careers is if they are lucky enough to warrant a second contract in the NFL. It’s a monumental decision for a young athlete to make. This isn’t just true of the student, but the coach hiring him. Their coaching career could well be on the line with every year of college football recruitment.

Rule-breaking in Knoxville

The pressure on college Head Coaches to attract the best talent in a free market can lead to nefarious behaviour. See Jeremy Pruitt’s unceremonious departure from Tennessee. An internal investigation found evidence of various NCAA rule violations relating to recruitment practices. Among the allegations was a claim that potential recruits were offered cash bribes in McDonald’s bags.

Naturally, the most prestigious schools hoover up the most promising high school seniors. As we move down the ladder, less successful programs scramble to construct their roster. This year, the rich have got richer.

A history of cheating

Of course, Tennessee isn’t the first program to be caught with their wallets out. Albert Means was the centre of scandal after committing to Alabama in 2000. He had accepted nearly $150,000 in bribes before signing with the school. The NCAA handed out a two year bowl ban and five years’ probation. They also docked 21 scholarships from the program. Georgia, Memphis and Arkansas were also found to be willing to break NCAA rules to secure Means’ services during the investigation.

In January 2020, a Georgia Bulldogs coach had contravened off-campus recruiting rules. It led to a 30 day cooling off period: the coach in question could not recruit, and the prospect could have no contact with the school.

Dan Mullen was involved in a similar fiasco at Florida in December 2020. He was found to have sent a text to a high school Junior to arrange an off-campus visit. That was in violation of NCAA rules. Amongst the punishments handed out was one year’s probation, and a ban from recruiting at the Seattle high school where the improprieties took place.

Why cheat?

Why do teams do this? The answer seems fairly simple. The risk outweighs the punishment. College football programs are under pressure to deliver results from wealthy boosters with cash burning holes in their pockets. When they’re caught, the NCAA retribution seems lenient.

The gravest punishment, a complete suspension of football operations, is the ultimate means of justice that the powers that be can wield.

The “death penalty” hasn’t been handed out since SMU were hit with a two year suspension in 1987. The Mustangs had been on probation seven times before the ban was handed out. In the modern age, college football programs have discovered where to overstep the line, and how far they are willing to do so. Put simply, programs know exactly how much to cheat before substantial consequences are put in place.

We have mentioned recent examples from Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. Does this mean that recruiting violations are specific to SEC teams only? Absolutely not. However, the presence of Alabama in the conference adds another pressure to keep up with the super rich. Nick Saban’s bourgeoisie is racing ahead of all rivals, amassing greater wealth as competitors stumble. Akin to Marx’s prediction of the later stage of free-market capitalism, only the most cut-throat capitalist can survive.

The Rich Get Richer

This year, reigning national champions Alabama enjoyed their most successful recruiting class to date. The Tide have four 5 star recruits enrolled: Jacorey Brooks (WR), Ga’Quincy McKinstry (CB), Tommy Brockermeyer and JC Latham (both OT). Another nine 4 star recruits have also enrolled. DE Dallas Turner, DT Damon Payne and RB Camar Wheaton have signed their letters of intent. Seven 4 star recruits have joined them (including the aptly named CB Devonta Smith).

Ohio State have enjoyed a similarly successful recruitment process so far. The nation’s #1 WR recruit Emeka Egbuka has signed a letter of intent to become a Buckeye. He is the ninth highest ranked high school recruit in the 2021 class. The nation’s #1 RB, TreVeyon Henderson, has done the same. The nation’s #1 and #3 DEs, Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau, are set to sign on. Expect to see Ohio State return to the college football playoffs with Ryan Day.

Powerhouses LSU, Georgia and Clemson make up the top 5 schools in terms of recruitment. It is no surprise to see the cream of college football amass a wealth of talent.

Vanderbilt on the other hand went 0-9 last year. The school ranks 48th in the country in recruitment for 2021. They have persuaded just one 4 star recruit to sign with The Commodores (DT Marcus Bradley). Vandy can offer unrivalled academic opportunities in the SEC. Their athletic careers aren’t as well protected. 

No Way Back

The gap between the rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots, continues to widen. The chances of seeing Cincinnati or BYU in the college football playoff will plummet as the bourgeoisie tightens its grip on the means of production. There seems to be no sign that the world of college football recruitment will become a fairer one.

NFL franchises will draft approximately 0.1% of athletes that graduate high school. The best way to maximise their chances is to play under Nick Saban, Ryan Day or Kirby Smart. With a dream career in professional sports at stake, can anyone blame them?

Marx’s critique of capitalism is as relevant today as it was in 1848. It seems as applicable to college football as any other industry. An elite group has collected a vast and growing portion of the means of production. Will it stop? Absolutely not. A spectre haunts college football, but it’s a future where the Crimson Tide haunts its rivals.

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