About a year and a half ago, I was sitting in the back patio of a crowded restaurant in Los Angeles. I noticed a table nearby where a teenage girl, her large family and several UCLA basketball coaches were having lunch. I concluded it was probably a recruitment lunch, especially after they all hugged and shook hands at the end. Now, in the era of COVID-19, an emotionally charged event like this seems nearly impossible. Sure, a meeting like this could happen over Zoom, but there are other elements of the college recruitment process that don’t lend themselves well to an online replacement.
Earlier this year, high schools across the country shut down due to the pandemic, canceling nearly entire spring sports seasons. Usually, college recruitment starts with letters and general interest from coaches, who often use stats to decide which athletes to try and recruit. This is where a canceled spring season could cause a big problem. Because live sporting events were called off, many athletes missed out on an entire season of opportunities to improve their stats. Some athletes were relying on their senior season for redemption after an injury, and their potential to compete at the collegiate level could have gone to waste.
After college recruiters show initial interest, they analyze further evaluations, statistics and video footage to decide if an athlete is the right fit. Again, the loss of the spring season is problematic for obtaining that footage and those statistics. Athletes are still able to make highlight videos, but recruiters miss out on the action from live games. Digital recruiting is also not necessarily as efficient when compared to in-person recruiting. Some coaches believe that following the cancellations, recruiting online and on social media will start to become a more common way for athletes to connect with college coaches.
Visits and in-person recruiting are another important step in the process, but in-person recruiting is currently banned for Division I schools until Aug. 31. There are slightly different rules for Division II schools, which have to comply with local health guidelines, but the rules are more flexible.
Online recruiting was increasing in popularity even before the pandemic hit, so this transition to almost completely online recruiting isn’t detrimental to the process. That being said, it’s impossible to beat a coach watching the athlete play in person.
This recruiting problem extends beyond just the loss of the spring season. It’s quite likely that in many places — especially in areas hit hard by the coronavirus — there will not be a fall sports season.
The California Interscholastic Federation, or CIF, is the state’s governing body for all high school sports. It recently announced that it will make a decision about the fall high school sports season by July 20. It also released a 10-page guide with advice on how to train during the pandemic. If the CIF decides not to go ahead with the fall season as scheduled, there may be a modified schedule, similar to what some college and professional sports leagues are planning.
Many student-athletes are worried, not only about getting recruited, but also about what will happen to athletic scholarships. Some athletes who planned on using introductions to coaches and scouts to get scholarships are now forced to rely on social media. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic is also a cause for concern. A survey by the Harris Poll on behalf of TD Ameritrade found that out of all student-athletes surveyed, nearly 20% have had their scholarships delayed or canceled, as reported by USA Today.
As if issues with recruitment and scholarships weren’t enough, student-athletes also have to deal with delayed access to standardized testing. The SAT and ACT have always been crucial to the recruitment and scholarship process. A high test score can make up for low grades, and many schools give more money through academic scholarships for higher test scores in a sliding-scale format.
After canceling the SAT in March and going through with online AP tests in May, the College Board has announced that it will try to administer more tests later this year, but with limited capacity. The College Board is also considering an online, at-home SAT, but has delayed it due to equity concerns.
Some socially distanced ACT tests have been administered in certain areas, with an online version expected to roll out in September. Due to limited access, the NCAA has dropped the testing requirement for incoming freshmen, but athletes might still lose the opportunity to use their test scores to make up for low grades, especially in a situation in which the pandemic may have contributed to poor academic performance.
Like almost everyone affected by the pandemic, high school athletes with college aspirations have had their plans upended and face looming uncertainties ahead. Students planning on attending college in 2021 are in uncharted territory, and college recruitment is just one of the many aspects of normal life affected by the disease.
Thinking back to that recruitment lunch I observed so long ago, I can only hope that someday soon, we can return to that kind of face-to-face interaction when it comes to the recruiting process. Until then, all that’s left to do is wait and see how future collegiate rosters turn out.
Rachel Alper writes for Bear Bytes. Contact her at [email protected].