If you’re looking to play college athletics, you can’t help but hear about verbal commitments. And if you’re pursuing an athletic scholarship, chances are that you’ll be making a verbal commitment yourself. Plenty of powerhouse schools expect athletes to verbally commit long before National signing day. So the sooner you can make a verbal commitment, the better–right? The question is better for whom?
Let’s start with defining a verbal commitment. You’ll find a definition of verbal commitment under the frequently asked questions about the National Letter of Intent (NLI). The definition is “stating publicly one’s intentions to attend a certain institution, is a non-binding, oral agreement between you and the institution. The only binding nature of the commitment is your word and the institution’s promise.”
Why is this even an issue for the NLI? Because the definition is part of an answer to the question “Can I make a verbal commitment to a school and sign an NLI with a different school?” And the short answer is “Yes.” The NLI states that
The NLI program does not recognize verbal commitments. It is not uncommon for a student to verbally commit to one institution and subsequently sign an NLI with another intuition. And, on some occasions, a school may accept your verbal commitment and later offer the NLI to another prospective student-athlete.
Verbal commitments are at best, a gentleman’s agreement. A player promises to attend a college while the coach promises to provide some sort of scholarship (usually, and if there is no scholarship, there’s no official NLI).
With recruiting starting earlier and earlier, it can be a relief to an athlete and her family to settle the question of where to go to college and how to pay for it even if she is only a sophomore. She can also stop worrying about what happens if she gets injured before she’s able to sign an NLI. The coach gets to fill a slot and move on to the next position, everyone is happy.
And for all the talk about somehow banning the practice, it’s obviously becoming institutionalized. Just take a look at the UCLA Recruiting website which states
We prefer athletes in their freshmen or sophomore years of high school or no later than in their junior season of high school to apply via the biography form. Unless you are a late rising junior it is probably too late to apply for an athletic scholarship in your senior year in virtually all of our 25 sports.
If it’s too late by the time you’re a junior, the scholarships could only have been promised through verbal commitments.
However, none of this is enforceable. Oh, the players will be scared by statements that college sports is a small world and if she de-commits, word will get around and no one will risk taking her. How true this is depends on your sport. But I can’t help think that if someone is willing to recruit a player as a sophomore, the player is good enough that other colleges will still be interested.
According to a Sports Illustrated examination of football recruits, “Of the 500 players ranked in the Rivals100 for the classes of 2007 through 2011, 73 (14.6 percent) de-committed at some point during their recruitment. Of those, 62 (12.4 percent) ultimately signed with a school other than the one to which they originally committed.”
A similar analysis in basketball found that “it’s likely that at least one in six players will de-commit.” Rivals reports that “the current recruiting class was represented by 34 players who had given early pledges; of those prospects, 13 have changed their college choices or opened the process to more programs.”
Are these players who de-commit morally suspect because they failed to keep their word? No more so than the coaches who in trying to get one step ahead of their competition, decided not to wait for the NLI periods and created the “verbal commitment” to begin with.
So what’s a player to do? First, understand what drives the process–the chance for an athletic scholarship. This means that if you don’t need an athletic scholarship to attend college, you have the ability to say, “not yet, I still want to look around.”
Of course, part of the problem is that too many students and their families only react to the recruiting process. So if something positive happens, they jump at the opportunity because they have no idea if something else good might happen. However, if these families took a proactive approach to finding colleges with programs that best match the player’s abilities and needs, they would be in a much better position to judge the value of a verbal commitment and if it’s something they can afford to pass on.
Now I realize that coaches will warn players that they don’t take walk-ons and that they won’t have a position waiting for them and so on. But these are often the same coaches that have no problem asking a prospect to greyshirt at the last minute or even simply changing their mind after making promises.
And keep in mind there’s also the fact that the coach you made the verbal commitment to may not even be around when you finally show up on campus. When players make commitments as eighth graders, is there really any way for them to know what the odds are of the coach being offered a better position in the following 4 years? Even if the new coach honors the verbal commitment, he may bring a total different approach to running the team that could make it difficult for the athlete to get any playing time.
Ideally, a player who makes a verbal commitment has already done enough research to know that any other offers that should come up in the future will be the result of unforeseen circumstances. This should give the player the confidence to make a verbal commitment if necessary for the coach and ultimately, the resolve to break it if it’s in her best interest.