Ole Miss' Oversigning: A Travesty?

Mike Marry: Former Greyshirt.

Many of you have probably read one of many recent articles about Ole Miss and the practice of oversigning. To many, the practice of signing more players than you seem to have scholarships is an evil one and bespeaking to the evils of an already corrupt and morally void college football season. A very website dealing with this topic, Oversigning.com, was even set up to specifically flesh out and expose the oversigning "issue" in college football today and sardonically awards an annual "Oversigning Cup" to every signing day's greatest offender. But, even after that, we cannot help but ask what really is the issue here? Are athletes signing scholarship papers on February 2nd only to find out in August that there's no room for them, meaning that they'll need to find another team? Are promises being broken? Are people being misled? Are there problems of principle with oversigning in general?

The idea of oversigning is a complex one. Per NCAA rules, each school is alloted 85 scholarships for football. Schools can use those, with some regulation, more-or-less as they see fit. Football is a "head count" sport. That means that if a player is receiving any scholarship for any reason and is on the football team's roster, he counts towards the limit. It doesn't matter if he's only getting enough money to cover his books because, in terms of the 85 limit, he is a full scholarship recipient. This rule does make sense, as it was set up to deter schools from giving "swimming scholarships" (it's fairly well documented that Ole Miss used to give "swimming scholarships" to certain other athletes, despite the school not having a swim team) or academic scholarships to football players in an effort to circumvent the rules.

Each football team can issue 25 new scholarships per year. Any player on the team that did not receive aid in the previous year who receives aid in the current year counts towards the 25 (except for a seldom-used opportunity to reward players who have been paying their own way for at least two years. Scholarships may be provided to them without counting towards the 25 limit. These scholarships still do count towards the overall 85 limit). For example, Ole Miss will use one of its 25 this season on West Virginia transfer QB Barry Brunetti, even though he was not receiving a scholarship from Ole Miss last season. The remaining 24 scholarships will be used to cover prospects signing on Wednesday who make it onto the Ole Miss roster.

This very quickly presents a problem, as you can already see. If a school signs 25 players per year, assuming not a single one redshirted, and saw no attrition whatsoever - neither of which have ever happened to any program in the modern era of recruiting - they would be left with 100 players after four years. That's 15 over the roster limit. If they were somehow able to redshirt their entire first class, they would then have 125 on campus. Obviously, that would be a nightmare, if it were even possible. Yet schools still regularly sign a full 25 players, or even more, each year. That is because attrition, wether it be for academic, athletic, or personal reasons, is a very natural part of this process. Even the NCAA is well aware of this, otherwise they would not have implemented two rules - 85 total scholarships with 25 new scholarships awarded a season - which cannot, during a normal course of a collegiate career, coexist under desired circumstances.

Of course, there's more to it than that, but that's what you really need to understand for the remainder of this entry. Continue for some analysis.

Ole Miss, at the time of this article, has commitments from 28 players and hopes to pick up another two. That would put the number at 30 potentially signed prospects. But how can that be managed? The Rebels need to get under 25 new scholarships awarded by the time school starts. The solution will be based on an assumption that a few probably will not qualify academically for college football, with the remaining few keeping the team over the 25 scholarship limit being asked to greyshirt (see below). This means that, essentially, Houston Nutt and company need to ensure that five of their commitments don't end up at school in August. There are a few ways that can be done.

Greyshirting

"Greyshirt" is an unofficial term which describes a player who is willing to sit out the fall semester of his freshman year while paying his own way for as many as nine hours of class. In simpler terms, this player is a part-time student paying his own tuition. He is unable to practice with the football team and does not count towards the 25 or 85 roster limit during that time. In theory, these players will then join the team the following January, participate in spring practice, and begin their football careers as "true freshmen," even with nearly a year of completed college courses.

Many people view this practice to be a big problem, and it can be. Schools sometimes spring this greyshirting option on prospects at a time when their other options are few. After all, if Ole Miss doesn't think you're good enough to be included in its final 25, who will? Certainly not LSU or Alabama, so, unless you want to be around State fans or Vandy girls all day, your prospects aren't great. It is by this perspective that greyshirting gets a bad rep. It is seen as misleading and a broken trust of sorts, and is viewed under the implication that it is something which is sprung upon atletes last-minute, essentially forcing them to make the move.

But that's just not the case. Ole Miss, as well as every other school engaging in this practice, has generally kept prospects informed of the possibility of a greyshirt well in advance of National Signing Day, giving the players plenty of time to make a well-informed and personally beneficial decision. This season, there are only two Ole Miss prospects who have reportedly been asked to greyshirt: QB Mikhail Miller and WR Collins Moore. According to sources close to the Cup, Miller knew it was a possibility in December and was given the green light by the coaching staff to look elsewhere if he felt so inclined. Moore found out in mid-January and, even with offers and visits elsewhere, decided to stick it out. Both of these guys knew this was coming and, even though other possibilities were available for them, kept with Ole Miss.

Why? Probably because of head coach Houston Nutt's history with greyshirts. Off of the top of my head, the players I can name who have been previously greyshirted by Nutt are Mike Marry and Evan Swindall. After sitting out their first years at Ole Miss, both played as true freshmen. Essentially, they missed out on nothing. It's not as if they were forced, after greyshirting, to use another year on a redshirt. They simply did not play during their first year of football-- a very common occurence anyway. Neither of them seemed to have needed the scholarship either, being as how both were able to support themselves through their first year in Oxford.

Such a process certainly circumvents NCAA restrictions but, if the coaches and players mutually agree on this decision and follow up on any agreements they have (I posit that Marry and Swindall seeing playing time on the field this past season more than makes up for not being "on" the team during their first year in school), who are we or anyone else for that matter to criticize the process and the decisions made by those who choose to implement it?

Pulled Scholarship Offers

From time to time, athletes will have their scholarship offers pulled; sometimes it happens quite late in the recruiting process - as was rumored to be the case for Baron Dixon, a Mississippi State-turned-Vanderbilt commitment. Many see this as a major problem and ethical void in college recruiting. After all, when a prospect commits to you, he trusts that an offered scholarship be there come signing day, right?

No, he doesn't, especially not if he actually reads the scholarship offer. Most offers include significant caveats to allow schools to retract said offers. There's language about "adequate production on the field," "exemplary discipline," "academic qualification," et cetera. (Here's a copy of the written offer LSU sent to QB Tate Forcier in 2008. Notice the disqualifying statements in the third full paragraph).  In other words, the scholarship offers are in no way irrevokable. They say as much right out front in not-so-subtle language. If they were binding agreements, schools would only offer 25 scholarships at any given point and would be left in a terribly difficult situation when, say, 15 of those 25 announced they were signing with someone else late in the recruiting process. A player who views scholarship offers in such a way, is simply incorrect. If you are offered a scholarship to play at a school, that is an honor and a testament to your achievements on the field. But, if someone better than you at your position is offered as well and offers a firm commitment to your mutual school of choice, there is nothing keeping the school from revoking your offer to make room for the more highly sought after prospect.

Recruits aren't as stupid and many people think they are. They might not be academic elites, but they understand this process. Nobody is being misled by anything here, despite the best wishes of the process' detractors.

Pulled Scholarships

One thing that some coaches do in order to make room for their new recruits is give underperforming players the boot. Again, this is a point of some contention, especially regarding the practice as undertaken by Alabama's Nick Saban. After all, when a prospect signs a letter of intent, he's ensured that he'll have a scholarship as long as he retains NCAA eligibility, right?

Once again, no, that is not at all the case. A letter of intent (the document signed on signing day), provides an athlete with a scholarship for one season. After that point, it is void and must be, in a sense, renegotiated. In fact, each year every scholarshipped athlete at a school, regardless of sport, receives a letter stating whether said school has decided to continue providing him or her with financial aid. A letter of intent does not lock a school in for four years of provided financial, and there is no language in the contract to suggest such. It does however ensure that the player will be on scholarship for a full year, something that cannot be changed (assuming they make it to campus and aren't tossed out of school and into the jailhouse, or something similarly grim).

That doesn't seem to end the argument that it's still simply a bad practice, and that's understandable. When football players sign with a school, they don't intend to be there for only one year. They plan to stay there until they graduate or enter the NFL. When their scholarships are pulled in order to make room for players coaches think are more beneficial to the team, it's probably quite disheartening. But let's look at the sitaution from a strictly economic, non-emotional point of view.

Let's say I'm a star high school quarterback. I'm tall, have strong arms, long flowing blonde hair, and drive a Camaro. I get an offer from my beloved Yoknapatawpha State College. I sign with them. A year and 30 pounds later, it turns out I'm pretty bad at football. I'm not performing well, not even in practice well. Does the college have the right to pull my scholarship? Is it wrong for them to no longer wish to financially support my being on the team, even if I'm not contributing to any sort of success whatsoever? On the other side of the coin, should the school at all feel obligated to provide me with four years worth of tuition, simply because I was a master of my craft when I was in high school?

Let's try another hypothetical: I'm a non-athlete student at Bumpkin High. Because of the low academic rigors at Bumpkin High and the lack of intellectual stability surrounding me, I am the valedictorian. Based on my success in the classroom, I am offered and accept a scholarship from the aforementioned college. After a semester in school, my GPA is a 1.5. Does the college have the right to pull my scholarship? Is it wrong for the university to no longer wish to financially support my studies, even if I'm not cut out for college?

Few reasonable people would answer that in the affirmative.

You may think these hypotheticals aren't alike, but I would urge you to change that thought process. In each situation, I'm a person who is seemingly gifted in something which a university is interested in me pursuing under their banner. After acquiring a scholarship to attend said university and poorly fulfilling my duties for a full year, it is determined that I am actually not as good as once thought. Because of that, the university is not wrong in pulling my scholarship. Personally, as a taxpayer, I would be frustrated if my state tax money were going to pay the scholarship of an underperforming student in academics or athletics. That's simply not the purpose of those scholarships. Both are set up to reward students for succeeding in a field, whether academic or athletic. If we're going to get upset when an athlete's scholarship is pulled during his tenure at a school simply because he "wasn't cutting it on the field," we should be equally upset when a non-athlete's scholarship is pulled because he wasn't cutting it in the classroom.

Is it heartless? Maybe. Is it a difficult decision for coaches and schools to make? Very much so. Is it an evil toying with the aspirations of a young, naive dreamer? Don't be ridiculous; of course not.

So What Does it All Mean?

What it means is this:

Athletic scholarships are a two-way street. In the same way that players can choose not to take offers, decommit before signing, fail out, or transfer, coaches can decide that said players are not worthy of the scholarships being provided for them. As long as the contractual terms of the offer/scholarship are met, to criticize the coaches/institutions is out of place. It is by design that coaches and schools do not have an infinite pool of resources with which they can provide for their prospective students, a design which has led to the unintended consequences of the practices of greyshirting, offer wavering, and scholarship revoking.

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