The athletic recruiting process is an organized way for high school students, their families, their future college coaches and teammates to communicate and decide if they are a good match for one another. The NCAA has a thick book of rules on how a coach can contact a player, when they can contact them, how many times, etc.

One of the most important dates in this process is Sept. 1 of a player’s junior year. This is the date after which schools can contact you via email and snail mail as much as they want. Prior to this date, a school can only contact a player once through the mail with a letter of interest and a questionnaire, or through an intermediary, like a club’s recruiting coordinator.

These rules were created so that college coaches wouldn’t take advantage of prospective student-athletes or monopolize their time. It’s meant to allow high school athletes as much of a typical high school experience as possible. The problem is that the recruiting process is focusing more heavily on sophomores and freshman for many sports such as volleyball and soccer. More and more players are making verbal commitments by the end of their sophomore year and essentially ending the college search before it even begins for their peers.

I wasn’t immune from the rigors of early recruiting. My journey started as a freshman in high school, when I received my first questionnaire in the mail from Duke University. I made my first college visit to the University of California at Berkeley the summer after my freshman year, and the next 18 months were a whirlwind of activity that ended in February of my junior year when I finally made the decision to commit to the University of Michigan.

By the end of it all, I had made 13 college visits — and been to a couple more than once. I missed school dances, spring breaks and much of summer break to practice, compete or visit schools. The travel, finances and stress of making the “right” decision created an enormous strain. But I was one of the lucky ones. My family, high school and college coaches were an excellent support system and didn’t put too much pressure on me. But I was certainly the exception to the norm.

As a whole, I think the recruiting process is incredibly flawed. Recruiting is a business — I get that. Coaches and programs need to make sure they have good recruiting classes so they can have good seasons and ultimately keep their jobs. But I don’t agree with how early it starts.

I think making such an important decision as early as your sophomore year is a dangerous thing not only for coaches, but for players as well. I don’t see how a sophomore in high school can make a legitimate life-changing decision when the law says they aren’t even responsible enough to drive by themselves yet. Plus, they have two years of athletic development left, have to take the SAT or ACT and could very likely get injured. And two years down the road the schools and programs they are evaluating could look completely different than they were when they commit.

It’s equally risky for coaches. A player could get hurt, not be able to get in academically or fail to develop as much as they had hoped over their coming high school years. What happens then? Either a coach lives with his or her “mistake” by taking a player who isn’t likely to help the team, or worse, they yank the rug out from under the prospective student-athlete by withdrawing the scholarship offer prior to signing day, which, for volleyball, is in early November. This practice, while ethically questionable, isn’t illegal, since verbal commitments aren’t legally binding.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the process changing any time soon. If one school decides not to actively recruit freshmen and sophomores, they could lose gifted athletes that commit early. Similarly, the athletes don’t want to get left behind when they see their peers verbally commit at 15, 16 or 17 years old, so sometimes the pressure an athlete feels to commit early is self-induced. The process isn’t likely to change without NCAA intervention.

At least half of my former high school and club teammates are either not happy, no longer attending the schools they committed to or no longer playing volleyball. I think a lot of this is a direct reflection of the flawed recruiting process. But again, I’m lucky I didn’t meet this fate.

Courtney Fletcher can be reached at fletchco@umich.edu.

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