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Committing young -- Is it a bad thing?

As the reigning "King of Scold" on this blog, I feel it is incumbent upon me to make a few comments regarding the recent commitment of Michael Avery to an offer Coach Gillispie made to him via his father.

As I wrote earlier, it has become obvious since last year that obtaining the commitment of younger and younger players is no longer a theoretical -- it has become the cutting edge of college basketball recruiting.  While many of the higher profile schools are able to recruit in the present fairly easily, non-elite programs or elite programs like Kentucky who have fallen on hard times recently have to be as innovative as possible.  When coaches see their peers recruiting classes stuffed full of 5-star players while they fight with smaller universities for decent JUCO's, it is not surprising to see coaches like Gillispie employing every legal tactic to out-maneuver his competition.

Make no mistake -- recruiting this far in the future contains many risks.  Verbal commitments, as everyone knows, are non-binding on either the university or the student athlete.  That does not mean, however, that they are meaningless.  Fortunately, most basketball coaches will live up to their commitment, even though we have seen far less inclination for students to do so -- we only need look at Scotty Hopson's change of heart to see how easy it is for the athletes.  For coaches, it is tougher -- if an early recruit doesn't pan out, he will take a lot of flack for backing out on his word (unless, of course, his name is Rick Pitino ) after offering a scholarship so early.  Indeed, one or two such back-offs may make future early commitments impossible -- once you get a reputation for doing something like that, your chances drop dramatically.

Be that as it may, many people (including yours truly) are concerned about the propriety of such early commitments.  A lot of this is simply due to being old-fashioned and concerned about kids who are four or more years away from being considered an adult making such a big decision about their future so far in advance.  But while that is maybe the gut-level response, I'll try to ignore that and look at this objectively.  So let's take a look at arguments against and the counter-arguments for such a commitment:

  1. A kid that age is too young to make such an important life decision.

    Counter:  Because coaches cannot make direct contact with recruits before their junior year in high school, they must go through the young man's parents even to make such an offer.  It is therefore impossible for the kid to make this decision without the informed consent of his parent(s)/guardian(s).  Kids beginning at ages younger than this are always making life-changing decisions that we forget about -- whether or not to try sex, or drugs, or alcohol.  To be a good student or not.  To be a good person or not.  Is this decision really more important?

    Also, it is pretty much impossible for the kid to screw this up.  He is making a decision about what college to attend -- for FREE!  Gillispie has offered this young man an opportunity to attend the University of Kentucky and play basketball in return for the opportunity to obtain a priceless thing -- a college education.  Even if Avery had decided to attend Podunk State University instead of Kentucky, he would still have the opportunity for a free education in return for playing a game.  The way I see it, there is simply no way to screw this up no matter what school you choose (unless, of course, it is U of L, UNC or Duke -- then it would be a tragic error in judgment -- I kid, OK?).

  2. The player may plateau and not really be (_fill in your school here_) material.

    Counter:  How is this bad for the young man?  I mean, we are talking about his interests here, not that of the offering school.  Schools and coaches know that this is risky, and this is one of the risks.

  3. The player may (_get hurt, do drugs, go to jail, test out to be a moron, decide not to come_)!

    Counter:  See 2 above.

  4. Kids this young should be concentrating on (_school, being a kid, getting better, etc_).

    Counter:  Wouldn't it be easier to do all those things if you took the decision about which college to matriculate to off the table?  You could ignore all the other advances from coaches and colleges and get yourself ready for your future.  Removing this decision from the table early on relieves pressure on the kid.  He doesn't have to worry about trying trying to make an impression on college coaches on the sometimes smarmy AAU circuit, which in any case does little to teach fundamental basketball skills.  Instead, he can concentrate on fundamentals, playing in events in which his family can participate, and generally minimizing the negative impact and influences (posse, AAU coaches with agendas) of being a big-time, uncommitted prospect.

The best argument that can be made against this process, in my opinion, is that of buyer's remorse.  If the kid later decides he made an error in judgment -- maybe his best friend went to a different school, or his parents moved, a girlfriend, or a family situation that makes him want to be closer to home -- it makes it easier for him to excuse backing out of his commitment.  Make no mistake, I take a dim view of people who don't live up to their agreements, whether the NCAA considers them binding or not.  The opportunities for an ethical breach by both parties are greatly magnified by such an early commitment.

But with that said, the opportunity for setting a good example are also magnified.  How much more does it say about a kid (and a coach, for that matter) who kept their agreement over such a long period of time and with so many potential pitfalls?  So the opportunity for being an ethical inspiration are also magnified.  My feeling is also that this will be more of a test on the coaches than the kids -- sooner or later, something unforeseen is going to reduce the value of such an early commitment that puts real pressure on the coach.  Also, what if the coach who accepted his commitment is no longer there?  Will his successor be as willing to honor a commitment he did not make?

There are many opportunities for agreements such as this to fail, but none of them appear to be substantially more severe than the same pitfalls which could happen in a normal, junior year recruitment.  In the final analysis, it looks to me like those of us (and I do include myself) who are uncomfortable with these situations need to think it through more carefully -- the negatives are there, but how bad can such a decision be when the adults are as involved as this?  Do we really expect a kid in his junior year in high school to have better judgment than his parents?  I say not likely, although it sometimes does happen.  In the end, though, there are many opportunities over the interregnum between the 9th grade and college for this to be corrected.  Can we say the same about a kid who waits until the late signing period to make his call?