The Case of 8th Grade UW Prospect Tate Martell: Is It Ok?
Certainly the University of Washington football staff has made a splash recently when it comes to recruiting with the addition of Shaq Thompson after hiring Tosh Lupui from Cal. This subsequently was followed by the day of reckoning (or something like that) where UW signed seven players during their Elite Camp. These type of headlines put the Huskies in the national spotlight which is exactly where they found themselves again yesterday, but this time it was a little different.
The University of Washington gained national attention because a 14-year-old quarterback named Tate Martell, who is entering 8th grade, gave an oral commitment to the Huskies. While the commitment is completely non-binding and UW cannot even comment on it, it raised a lot of emotion for college football observers and fans throughout the nation. In an ESPN poll, 81% of respondents indicated that is was “unacceptable” for colleges to recruit athletes before high school. Locally, the Seattle Times conducted a poll in which 43% of respondents said it was “crazy and way too young”, while 29% liked it and 26% had mixed emotions about Martell’s commitment.
Unfortunately these polls don’t really get at the heart of the issue. In fact, I think this recruiting story has three central and separate issues that should be addressed. First, are the Huskies wrong for offering Tate Martell a scholarship, even though it is within the rules? Second, should the NCAA mandate an age restriction on offering scholarships? And lastly, what affect, if any, does this have on young athletes?
Beginning with the Dawgs, I don’t see any problem with them offering Martell based upon the rules currently. Both LSU and USC recruited or are recruiting middle schoolers now and thus it appears the competitive landscape is getting weirder and younger. While it may seem to be a lot of attention for a 14-year-old, the commitment is essentially meaningless. Until a player signs his Letter of Intent (usually in February of his senior year in high school), a player and a school can SAY whatever they want. It really doesn’t matter. We’ve learned this each year as high-profile athletes switch schools right before signing day. Either Martell or the UW can back out of the “commitment” at any time up until 2017, so it just gives the Huskies some attention nationally and on the radar of a pretty good 8th grader.
For those who want to talk about whether this makes Steve Sarkisian and his staff “good guys”, I would caution this type of argument in collegiate athletics. First, by all accounts Coach Sark seems like a good enough man. (Note: my brother-in-law even is in dinner club with him which sort of makes them both lame). Second, Tyrone Willingham probably was as good of a man who you could have lead a football team. And guess what? No one cared around Husky football because he couldn’t win. Want to know another great guy? Bill Doba, former Washington State coach. He is gone too. The reality is that fans and boosters want wins. I am not sure they want illegal or immoral actions by their coach, but it appears people are willing to look the other way when the team wins (cough cough, Oregon and Chip Kelly). Thus within the competitive landscape, with Lane Kiffin of USC doing this same thing two years ago in getting a commitment from Class of 2015 QB David Sills, the Huskies are playing the game well.
Thus the issue really falls to the NCAA and how – or if – they want to provide jurisdiction on matters of age and scholarship offers. Thus far it appears the NCAA isn’t interested in being involved. But they should. This is exactly the type of rule that the NCAA should regulate on. They should step in and say that no athlete can be offered a scholarship until they enter high school or complete 8th grade (which accounts for home schooled students). This won’t stop schools from “recruiting” kids of all ages, but it will allow for a limit to the madness. While it may seem confusing or contradictory to say I have no problem with UW offering Martell, but that the NCAA should stop it – well, you are probably right. It comes down to this. I don’t find it morally objectionable that an eighth grader receive a scholarship offer. Thus, I don’t have a problem with UW playing within the rules with Tate Martell. I do however think it is not a good thing for the future of high school athletes and thus I think the NCAA should step in.
There are numerous “experts” like Steve Clarkson, who trained Jimmy Clausen, Matt Barkley and the USC early commit David Sills as well as Martell, who appear to be helping athletes. And many of them are, but some are a bit too self interested. As a high school basketball coach, I see the pervading influence of trainers and “experts” who only provide more pressure, less fun and extra hype to athletes. Check out what Clarkson said of Sills in 2010:
“His skill set is off the chart,” Clarkson said. “I’ve never seen anyone at his age do what he’s been able to do.”
The commitment has happened in college basketball previously, but is unprecedented for college football where it’s harder to project how a player as young as Sills will develop physically. Clarkson says that won’t be a problem.
“He’s already six feet as a 13-year old,” Clarkson said. “And he’s breaking down NFL footage.”
Now in 2012, Clarkson says this of Martell:
Clarkson said he showed Sarkisian some film of Martell earlier this year that Sarkisian “was just thrown back by his ability.” He said he told Sarkisian that “if you could clone Fran Tarkenton and Brett Favre, you would have Tate Martell and that just resonated.”
David Sills is the best ever at his age? Martell is the next Brett Favre and/or Fran Tarkenton? This isn’t good for high school OR middle school athletes. And it isn’t new. There are those who will tell young athletes anything they want to hear in order to advance themselves or get a part of the fame that comes with the success. While I have never met Clarkson and don’t know him at all, I know he makes good money doing this business. In a story in Forbes, it stated that Clarkson can charge around $7400 for a private group of 50 kids who train with him. Do you think more or less parents will send their kids to Clarkson after another middle school quarterback got a scholarship offer? So guess who really benefits from this story? Not Sarkisian. Not Martell. It is Clarkson.
Tate Martell will now spend all of high school in the spotlight (not that he wouldn’t already as a talented QB) that gets brighter and brighter with each year. Martell will have articles written about him. He will have people tell him he is the best ever. He will have everyone but his head coach tell him he is perfect. Martell doesn’t need an early scholarship offer. But don’t blame UW. Blame the NCAA for making it completely legal to do so.