Opinion: A little empathy for the recruits

After having undergone a recruitment process of his own, the author has a newfound sympathy for high schoolers trying to do their best in the out-of-control world that is college recruiting.

As most of us will never run 4.4 40s or bench press 300 pounds, we will never get to be recruited by major colleges as a student-athlete. It will remain forever foreign to us, and that we sit a safe distance away will render us free to critique the process and its key participants, especially those high-school stars who look especially crazy in the process.

Indeed, we know these 17 year-old divas all too well:

  • The quarterback who has had his offers for two years, but still drags schools along well past Signing Day, maybe because of uncertainty, probably because of the limelight, but certainly costing coaches and other would-be players in the process.
  • The cornerback who feigns uncertainty for the limelight, putting on the local school's hat, then its archrival's hat, and then the regional powerhouse's hat, only to end up in the hat – and the program – we suspected all along. (Incidentally, this is usually the program where his uncle just got an assistant coaching gig).
  • The linebacker who commits, then decommits, then recommits again, only to go off to his military prep academy/Mormon mission/prison sentence/junior college/80 days around the world in a hot-air balloon, have an epiphany and commit elsewhere upon his return.

But there's another side of this recruiting process that warrants some scrutiny too, for it is hardly just the recruits who are crazy -- and maybe we can all relate to these high schoolers better than we initially thought.

While we'll never have to take Wonderlics, be asked whether our mother was a prostitute or be measured, weighed and prodded in every way imaginable at the meat markets that are college and pro combines, we'll go through a similarly rigorous process in our lives, probably many times. It's called a job search, and it parallels the high-school recruiting process eerily well.

(Admittedly, the biggest difference between the recruitment of Joe FiveStar and the job search of Joe SoftwareEngineer is one of power: top athletes get lured by all sorts of over and under the table benefits that no business candidate, no matter how promising, could rightfully expect. That no software engineer is going to have job offers from 30 companies, while some high schoolers certainly will, is responsible for this gross imbalance of power.)

Still, for every five-star prospect, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of lower-rated guys, players desperately hoping for a BCS offer, a D-I offer, or any offer at all. And from their perspective, the chase for a scholarship is mightily similar to the chase for a job:

  • Us everymen summarize our experience with a resume. Athletes make a tape. Consultants are available who, for a nontrivial fee, will guarantee to make either product stand apart from the rest.
  • We have job fairs, where if we perform well, we might meet contacts, discover leads, and land interviews or even offers, if we're lucky. Players have combines, where, if they perform well, they could meet coaches, hear of other combines or academies to attend, and, if they're lucky, generate future in-home or on-campus visits, and maybe an offer.
  • We might find ourselves with the mixed blessing of having to choose between multiple offers. If so, each firm might pressure us with deadlines, sweeten the pot by agreeing to start us at a higher level or fast-track promotions, or even go negative and tell us problems with our rival potential employer.
    Star athletes too face deadlines. Our organization chart is their depth chart, and coaches certainly try to entice stars with promises of starting high atop that depth chart. And, obviously, college coaches certainly know how to negatively recruit.

For receiver and receptionist alike, the resulting process creates incredibly tough decisions. Does one accept a time-sensitive offer that's an eight on the 10-scale, or turn it down for the hope of a nine or 10? What is the relative importance of job description/position vs. salary/playing time vs. location vs. company/program prestige vs. promotion potential/depth chart vs. future prospects vs. office culture/team chemistry?

All the while trying to sort through these questions, your available information is constantly changing. Another offer you've been counting on may fall through, or one you never expected may surprise you. Maybe a colleague/teammate just got back from School X/Company Y and tells you your would-be assistant is a real jerk. Maybe you find out that your potential location for the next several years of your life isn't as luxurious as the brochures make it out to be. You know it's ultimately your decision, but you also want to keep your family's feelings in mind, and, like yours, they may be changing too.

Meanwhile, recruiters may be bluffing (really, why do they need your decision within 72 hours?), but they have all the power – there's plenty of you's but relatively few them's. So do you call their bluff and try to ask for more time? What do you do if they say it truly is an "exploding offer", and accept by Monday/before that DT from Texas does, or else it's gone forever? If you let the offer "blow up" on you, what happens if no other offers come? So perhaps you accept the offer then, but the next week, your dream school/company finally comes through with an offer. Do you go back on your word, or spend the next several years of your life thinking ‘what if'?

All of these questions are on my mind because I recently went through a job search of my own, and I had to struggle with most, if not all of them. Like many recruits, and like most of us in the working world, I sent out dozens of feelers, heard nothing from the majority, no from some more and maybes from a few. I phone-interviewed/in-person interviewed/first-round interviewed/follow-up interviewed/behavioral interviewed/structural interviewed/plain ole interviewed those maybes, which resulted in several more no's, but also a couple of probably's. I then provided references/emailed thank yous galore/generally badgered, and eventually received a couple of yes's. (Major props to Jim Rutter, reference extraordinaire.)

A jobs that wasn't a great fit was among the first to offer, so I had to keep delaying until I felt comfortable enough with my other prospects to say no. A job that I thought for sure would offer didn't, a job that I really didn't think would offer did at the eleventh hour (maybe after their Plan As fell through, as my mom helpfully pointed out) and throughout it all, I woke up each day with a perspective completely unrelated to my perspective the day before as whether to accept or decline this or that offer. On multiple offers, I swung from definitely yes to definitely no to everywhere in between. In my mind, the process gradually transformed from incredibly exciting to simply stressful, and by the end of it, I couldn't wait for it all to be over.

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Ultimately, I was lucky enough to accept a wonderful job, as I'll be working in international HIV/AIDS for the CDC starting this summer, background check pending. But my own recruiting process didn't just provide me with future employment. It taught me an empathy for the kids I interview every day at The Bootleg that I had never felt so strongly before.

It's one thing to say it, but it's another to experience it first-hand: planning your future is incredibly stressful, in no small part because people on the other side of the table usually have their best interests in mind, not yours. Such stress causes people to do and say things they wouldn't normally, especially when said people are 16 years old and this decision is likely the first decision of this magnitude they've ever made in their lives. I don't know about the rest of you, but for the foreseeable future, I'll be bending over backwards to try to see things from the recruit's perspective, and maybe even give them the occasional break.

Having said that, this isn't my first recruiting rodeo, and, as such, I've seen firsthand that players are fully capable of behaving badly too. So do the pressures of recruiting excuse the Stanford commit who lied to me outright, telling me Friday he wasn't committing over the weekend, then pulling the trigger Saturday for Stanford? Does some hard work and a lot of God-given talent excuse the preening on the sidelines of national all-star games? Does naivety excuse decommitting and then trashing the program on the way out the door, or buying out a Lids to announce your college decision?

Probably not. But, next time, before I judge too harshly, I'll remember that I was in those same shoes not too long ago, and, like the rest of us, probably will be again.

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