In yet another sign that college sports recruiting has gotten out of hand, University of Michigan tight-ends coach Jay Harbaugh sent a hand-written note to a four-star prospect’s girlfriend. Pick your adjective: inappropriate; unprofessional; desperate; creepy. Unfortunately, it’s also par for the course.
For decades, college athletic programs have used women as part of their recruiting strategy to persuade prospects to commit to their schools. In 2008, University of Florida head football coach Urban Meyer persuaded a junior college player to transfer to the Gators after several phone calls with the player’s girlfriend. Meyer helped secure the girlfriend a gymnastics scholarship at Florida, which seemed to violate both decency and an NCAA rule prohibiting coaches from recruiting for sports other than their own. Meyer was cleared of any violations by the university.
In 2012, the mother of five-star recruit Landon Collins, who committed to the University of Alabama, accused Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban of essentially bribing her son with a job offer for his girlfriend. While this would be a violation in college basketball, the bylaw prohibiting it oddly doesn’t apply to football. The university refused to comment on the allegations. Collins’ girlfriend then became the target of Twitter harassment from angry LSU fans who believed he chose Alabama because of her.
Perhaps the most insidious use of female enticement is the use of “hostesses” to show prospects around campus. Often these women’s duties go far beyond answering questions about the dining halls. Several former hostesses have said it was understood they were to do whatever it took to convince the recruit the school was right for him. Several have later said they were raped.
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The role of sex in recruiting isn’t a secret. In 2013, former Oklahoma State defensive back Chris Wright told Sports Illustrated that an assistant coach told him, “You didn’t do your job,” after learning that a recruit Wright was hosting hadn’t had sex the night before.
There is certainly a distinction between contacting a woman already involved in a consensual relationship with a recruit and pressuring college coeds to sleep with prospects. But in both cases, women are still used as tools, a means to attain the prize of a talented player.
It’s doubly insulting that the girlfriend and sex tactics fly given all the things the NCAA prohibits when it comes to recruiting. Money changing hands is a violation of the highest order, but female students being passed around among football players is A-OK. You can’t talk to a recruit during a mandated “dead period,” but you can totally call his girlfriend, who isn’t in the same class of protected commodity.
Recruiting an athlete’s girlfriend also furthers the “woman behind the man” trope that might bolster men’s self-esteem but is really just condescending sexism. A recruit’s girlfriend has her own decisions to make as far as college and beyond. Harbaugh’s letter – “he speaks very highly of you so I’m sure you’re very special;” “we need to get him out here to visit us again … put in a good word” – frames this young woman as nothing more than a football player’s girlfriend rather than as a person in her own right. Furthermore, you’d think a guy who spent the last year in a front-row seat to the Ray Rice debacle might show a little more restraint in involving a player’s girlfriend in team affairs.
We all know the NCAA needs to fix recruiting practices. If that means easing restrictions so coaches don’t resort to using women as bargaining chips, so be it. Whatever you do, leave the girlfriends out of it.
Kavitha A. Davidson writes about sports for Bloomberg View.