Taking the Low Road: Anticipated Negative Recruitment of Missouri Football Following Michael Sam’s Announcement

By on March 13, 2014 11:00 am
Institute of Sports Law and Ethics

The unfortunate reality of negative recruiting, the practice of a coach criticizing a rival rather than focusing on the merits of his or her own school, was something I dealt with on a continuing basis during my time as an NCAA investigator (July 1976- January 1984). If you can imagine it, I heard it. Typically, assistant coaches, who are most familiar with what is happening on the recruiting trails, would describe to me how their program was being unfairly criticized through the negative recruiting tactics of its rivals.

Of course, there can be a thin line between what one might call negative recruiting and what another might call simply telling the truth. This article contains opinions and speculation of SEC assistant football coaches as they discuss why they think there will be efforts made to cast suspicion and negativity toward the University of Missouri following former Missouri football player Michael Sam’s announcement that he is gay. If their predictions turn out to be correct and Missouri is subject to the type of negative recruiting described in the article, then clearly those remarks about Missouri would not be particularly thoughtful or incisive, but then, negative recruiting typically is not the stuff of brilliance.  It is intended to disrupt, to raise doubts among recruits and their families, not to win any awards for ethical conduct. Truth is often a casualty.

Interestingly, negative recruiting has never been a punishable NCAA offense. I recall that individual conferences sometimes enacted legislation to prohibit their member schools from negative recruiting, but I’m not sure how effective these efforts were. Did everybody engage in negative recruiting? No, definitely not, but recruiting was and is a tough business. A significant amount of money for coaches and schools rides on the decisions of teenagers. Some assistant coaches told me that they viewed negative recruiting as an unfortunate, but inevitable, byproduct of the recruiting wars. These coaches told me that their jobs were on the line, and if they had to “go negative” to sign a player, they definitely would.

As I said earlier, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish negative recruiting from the disclosure of accurate, if damaging, information about rival institutions. For example, is it ethically questionable for a football coach to point out to a recruit the poor graduation rate figures of football players at another school that is also after this recruit? Or, is that simply a case of a coach doing his job to present to a recruit a full and accurate picture? Wouldn’t you want to know the graduation rate data (that is, objective findings rather than subjective opinion) if you were a recruit or a parent of a recruit?

What about commenting on the age of a rival’s head coach? What about commenting on the health of a rival’s head coach?  What about commenting on documented personal problems of a rival’s head coach?  What about commenting on rumors of bad behavior by a rival’s head coach? What about commenting on the possibility that a rival will go on NCAA probation? What about telling an African American recruit that a rival’s community is notoriously insensitive to the needs of African Americans?

Regarding Michael Sam, I think it speaks well for the University of Missouri that nobody “outed” the young man following his private announcement to his fellow teammates and coaches prior to his senior season. That gave Sam the opportunity to manage the timing of his announcement. Any rival coach who attempts to spin Missouri’s sensitivity to Sam’s situation into some type of sinister portrait of Missouri to a recruit or his family will, I hope, find his efforts falling on deaf ears.  But, you never know what will resonate with a recruit or his family (or with his circle of advisors).

Assistant coaches rise through the ranks based to a large extent on how well they recruit. As the saying goes, “It’s Jimmys and Joes, not X’s and O’s” that determine the success of a coach. We shouldn’t be surprised by the reality of negative recruiting, especially given the substantial amount of money at stake, particularly in football and men’s basketball. I think the extended University of Missouri family is to be commended for its approach to Michael Sam’s situation, but I will not be the least surprised if we learn that rival recruiters attempt to paint an entirely different picture of the university and its approach to Sam’s situation. Let’s hope they don’t succeed.

Thoughts? Please contact me at mike.gilleran@gmail.com. Thanks.

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