The NCAA approved a proposal today that will create an early signing period to coincide with the traditional junior college signing day. In 2017, that will be December 20th, and the new window will last three days.
Before we get into the rest of this post, a few words about who actually benefits and loses from this rule. Northern schools (yes, that means Minnesota) will benefit. Southern schools and schools with particularly stringent academic standards stand to lose. How do we know this? Because historically northern schools have been supportive of this change and southern schools and Stanford have been opposed. There are good reasons for this. Northern schools are traditionally disadvantaged because they were unable to get recruits on campus during the spring and summer for official visits. As a result, the weather tended to be poor when recruits arrived for official visits in the fall and winter.
Conversely, it is wonderful to visit the north during the summer and miserable to be in the south. There is a reason why many historians argue that the air conditioner is the most important technological innovation other than the automobile for southern economic growth in the 20th century.
Of course, with any change to recruiting there will be discussion as to how it affects recruits. There’s an easy answer to this question. It will not change anything for the vast majority of Power 5 recruits. For the recruits affected, the net change is probably close to zero because recruiting is already a terrible process. If anyone starts discussing rules about how this harms athletes, look at their affiliation. Chances are quite good that it will be a school in the south that stands to lose in some way.
There are a few cases where recruits may be harmed by this new rule change. Some top recruits will likely lose out from money funneled to them by bag men. In a world of early signing, there’s less time to throw money at players during recruiting, though not once they sign. That would probably be a negative to athletes, but even that is unknown and only applies to top level kids. Moreover that benefit is itself illegal and probably not something to consider when conceptualizing prospect welfare.
Recruits who are late bloomers are also likely to be hurt if recruiting remains static, but it is strange to presume that a bunch of competitive rational actors would continue to play the same strategies regarding “late bloomers” with these rule changes. There’s also a lack of data on how many prospects are actually late bloomers, and as importantly, how many of them go on to be picked up by top schools. The former recruiting director for the Minnesota Golden Gophers Billy Glasscock said as much last year when talking about how many recruits get into college but are not identified until very late.
Recruits who struggle to academically qualify are harmed, but assigning harm in a zero sum gain must also look at the gain for the player who gets the spot instead. If we care about overall student welfare, then there’s no reason to privilege one recruit over another.
A third class of prospects are those that are pressured to sign early, but this is not different than the current regime apart from the fact that a school now has to send a letter of intent to a prospect. For articles about the harm to athletes, curiously few words are spilled on the number of offers that are yanked late in the cycle when a school gets a commitment from a better prospect. An early signing period means that recruits who have committable offers in December can sign immediately, negating the possibility that they can have offers pulled in late January.
The final class of prospects who may be harmed are those who sign letters of intent to play for one coach who is then fired or leaves for another job. I have some sympathy for this argument, but I find that it too suffers from assuming that recruiting will remain static. Suppose that a coach is potentially going to be fired. Recruits will know this information as well, and should become more hesitant to sign early letters of intent for coaches who may not be safe. Athletic directors will also be aware of this possibility. The upshot of the early signing period is that it is just as probable that coaches will be fired even earlier to allow new coaches to salvage the likely early signers. The latter case is more interesting, but is also already a thing in basketball without tremendous problems.
Recruiting is not and will never be fair, and while proposals that consider athlete welfare should be commended, these proposals are doing an unfair comparison. The correct comparison is between the just approved proposal and the previous rules. In that comparison, most complaints about athlete welfare have a skewed version of which athletes are important. The majority of two and three star recruits, who make up the vast majority of total recruits every year, are unlikely to be harmed.