When College Athletes Sign on the Dotted Line

The complex realities of recruiting for our kids

by Daniel Riseman

It’s the golden ticket — an athletic scholarship from a Division I college. Students and parents dream of that moment, but less than 2 percent of all high school athletes receive such offers, as detailed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Competing as an Ivy League athlete is the Holy Grail. These Division I student-athletes receive extraordinary opportunities both in the classroom and on the field.

Even though the Ivy League does not award athletic scholarships, this does not mean it cannot provide financial aid to its athletes. Due to impressive endowments, ranging from Brown’s $3 billion to Harvard’s $36.4 billion, Ivy League schools’ financial aid packages tend to be the most generous of any conference in the nation, according to The New York Times.

Beyond competing on varsity teams, high school athletes have to participate on travel teams if they wish to have any chance to play at the collegiate level. In addition to weekday practices, on weekends team members frequently travel hundreds of miles to compete in tournaments. The costs are significant — travel expenses alone can add up to thousands of dollars per season.

This past summer, Zoe Maxwell, a high school junior in Westchester County, New York, reached her dream. She made a verbal commitment to play for Brown University. While she will be part of the 1.4 percent to have the opportunity to play Division I soccer, according to the NCAA — her journey was not simple.

Recruiting is a complicated courting dance filled with complex rules. To start with, the NCAA forbids college coaches from directly contacting high school athletes until their junior year. But just because coaches cannot contact underclassmen, it does not mean that these athletes cannot contact college coaches.

Early scouting has become more prevalent in women’s sports compared to men’s because girls mature earlier than boys. As a result, Maxwell had to be proactive as a freshman, emailing coaches at colleges that she was most interested in and informing them of her tournament schedule. On several occasions, she did not receive a response from a coach and had to hope that he or she would be there to watch her compete.

College coaches who watched her play were not allowed to talk with her. The NCAA rules state that “contact occurs any time a college coach says more than hello to a prospect.” Therefore, “communication with college coaches went directly through my travel coach,” said Maxwell. After being notified by her coach of interested college coaches, if Maxwell was also interested in that specific school, she would email or call the coach.

Her travel coach’s role was critical, explaining any NCAA rule that confused her. Even if she unknowingly broke a rule, she could jeopardize her eligibility. By clarifying the process, her coach helped her develop greater trust in the recruiting process and realize that college coaches were adhering strictly to the rules.

As sophomore year started, Maxwell began going on unofficial visits to colleges in which each coach did his or her best to win her over. During her visit to Brown, she met with the head coach and several players; she also discussed her academic credentials with an admissions officer. She felt a strong connection to the university, and soon thereafter, she verbally committed to play soccer at Brown.

While NCAA rules do not restrict the number of unofficial visits, a prospect is required to pay for all travel expenses for such visits. In contrast, Division I schools pick up the tab for a prospect’s travel and meals during official visits, but NCAA rules limit the number of official visits to five. And these visits cannot take place until the start of the athlete’s senior year.

Even after a great campus visit with Brown University’s head soccer coach, Maxwell understands the harsh reality: verbal commitments are non-binding. If a prospect is injured following a verbal commitment, that offer may be taken away. But she remains undeterred: “I still play the game the same way; however, I stretch more and complete certain exercises to prevent injuries.”

When injuries strike, they can be game-changers. For one Westchester County football recruit, days after he tore his ACL following his verbal commitment, the college coach called to notify him that the offer had been rescinded. “I knew it was just a verbal commitment, so when the coach cut ties with me, I wasn’t too surprised.” While there are some horror stories, the majority of college coaches and athletes honor their commitments.

After making a verbal commitment, the student-athlete’s name is placed on a commitment list at topdrawersoccer.com. “Coaches are aware of my commitment and no longer attempt to contact me,” said Maxwell.

At the start of her senior year, she will sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI), signifying the end of her recruiting process. Once she signs that document, she will be officially bound to Brown University: “When you sign an NLI, you agree to attend the institution listed on the NLI for one academic year in exchange for that institution awarding athletics financial aid for one academic year,” according tothe NCAA. But signing an NLI does not guarantee an athlete a spot on the team; Maxwell knows she must continually improve her game.

The young woman’s advice for those who want to play college sports? “Work hard to improve and be successful academically and athletically … stay organized and patient because the recruitment process can be very stressful.”

Daniel Riseman, founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Irvington, New York, has been counseling students and working with families for 16 years.