Over the weekend, Rivals.com uploaded two sixth graders’ profiles to their database, after the student-athletes outshone their cohorts at NextGen’s Boston camp – one of twelve scheduled football camps the company has scheduled around the United States this year.
(Full disclosure: NFL veteran Brent Williams, Next Gen’s founder, is also a national speaker for NCSA Athletic Recruiting, touring the country to help high school students and their families understand the recruiting process.)
The two sixth graders sparked a great deal of media interest (for example, in USAToday Sports, SBNation, Sports Illustrated and SportingNews.com), as well as commentary on social media – which ranges from surprise or incredulity to a full range of other emotional responses – about the merits of the two student-athletes, and the overall practice of recruiting middle school athletes outside the traditional constraints of NCAA-approved timelines.
Racing to be first
For college recruiters, the prospect—and pitfalls—of recruiting middle school athletes has become a perennial topic, particularly for young female student-athletes. In late January of this year, Full Count Softball reported that UCLA garnered its youngest verbal commit in a Class of 2019 softball player from El Paso, Texas. (To compare, the two sixth graders are in the Class of 2021, and Rivals currently has no 2020 players in its database, according to Sports Illustrated).
Similarly, in January 2014, the New York Times reported on a female soccer athlete who accepted a scholarship offer before she entered high school. For that article, NCSA Athletic Recruiting analyzed commitment data and discovered that less than 5 percent of either men’s basketball or football players commit to colleges early (meaning before the official recruiting process begins), while 36 percent of women’s lacrosse players and 24 percent of women’s soccer players do.
On the one hand, the modern trend toward recruiting middle school athletes creates Wild West conditions, to paraphrase college coaches’ concerns to The Dallas Morning News. On the other, heavy media splashes for stand-out stars in various sports create sensational tides that add to the confusing oceans (I’m going to pilot this metaphor for as long as it—wait for it—holds water) of college recruiting. What age is normal for a student to commit? At what sport? In what division?
In general: what gives?
We decided to take another look at NCSA Athletic Recruiting’s own database of students to see what we could find out about the trend.
Student talent, parent desire?
Since 2012, close to 60,000 student-athletes not yet in high school have created profiles in the NCSA network. (This number might include some students who are actually now in high school – if, for example, a student was in eighth grade in 2012). The total number of middle school students creating profiles stays consistent year over year.
Here’s where it gets interesting. At least to me. I’m a numbers nerd.
In every year, the number of parents who create profiles on behalf of their child has increased, up to 71 percent in 2015. (In all cases, we require students to be at least 13 years old, and ask for parents to confirm that they’re aware their students are on the platform.)
So for three-quarters of students who haven’t entered their freshman year, it’s the parent—not the student—who’s beginning the process of introducing college coaches to their child’s performance.
This could indicate the low rumble of approaching helicopter parents. Or conversely, it could point to the age old question of adolescence: how to open doors for teenagers, and provide them with the tools to help themselves.
The changing face of college recruiting
Since 2000, pioneering companies like NCSA Athletic Recruiting have helped college-bound student-athletes change the recruiting process by introducing digital platforms, streaming videos, free recruiting education classes and similar tools. These democratize athletic recruiting by enabling qualified student-athletes to reach beyond their local networks, and conversely, to simplify for college coaches the physical process of recruiting prospective athletes.
In many ways, the benefits to fueling athletic recruiting with technology outweigh the drawbacks. But as with any technology, the manner in which we use the tools at our disposal alter their value. And, at a time when only 20 percent of Americans believe that student loans are a good investment (according to an April 2014 Mintel survey), it’s not hard to generalize that we’re stressed out about how we’re going to pay for college. As parents. As student-athletes. As a nation.
But the ultimate goal of technologies like NCSA Athletic Recruiting’s platform isn’t to add to complicated athletic recruiting processes. We hope to simplify college recruiting: to help students find their school, play their sport, and, if everything works out, get some money to help them pay for it.