It's time for Bill Gates and the boys to have a sit down with the dictionary folks at Merriam-Webster and American Heritage. Every time I type the word decommitment, the spell check in Microsoft Word tells me that I've misspelled it and offers no alternative or replacement. Several online sites agree there's no such word and others define it as "dropping or turning away from a prior commitment." No matter, whether it's a word or not, it certainly is an action, and we're seeing more and more of it in the recruiting environment of women's basketball.
Decommitment is nothing new in our sport, and it's virtually an everyday occurrence in men's basketball. The real issue for us is the escalation in the number of recruits reneging on their commitments and the casual attitude that now seems to surround the decision-making process. The fact that it's commonplace on the men's side alone should tell you that it's a problem. There are a lot of areas of their game we may want to emulate or strive to reach, but recruiting really shouldn't be one of them.
To fully grasp why the decommitment trend is such a concern, you have to understand the complete impact of a verbal commitment from a student athlete. Yes, we all know it's not binding, but there's a lot more than just an offer and acceptance going on here. Schools recruit multiple players for every athlete they hope to sign. When they receive a prospect's verbal commitment, they're going to be telling other athletes who they've been recruiting that they've filled the spot and are moving on. In turn, that rejected athlete may look at additional schools they may not have already been considering and subsequently bump other prospects down the food chain for School B. It may not be economics, but there's always some type of trickle-down effect.
The impact for a coaching staff that receives a verbal is that they refocus their recruiting efforts elsewhere. They're comfortable that they've addressed a need and are no longer making the calls, writing the letters and e-mails or cultivating the relationships that are instrumental in recruiting other prospects for that spot. Their attention now may be on other positions they currently need to fill or they can put more time into the evaluation and recruitment of future classes.
Even coaches from the other schools recruiting an athlete who makes a verbal commitment feel some impact. Obviously a priority recruit in their plans is now out of the picture, and they have to move on to Plan B, or as it often goes in real-world recruiting, plans C, D, E and F. The reality is that another prospect is going to move up in their pecking order and begin to develop a rapport with those coaches and see their program as a genuine option for their future.
Now, let some time pass and move on to a Mister Rogers moment. Can you say decommitment?
Let's look at the impact beyond the athlete herself. The school that lost the commitment is now scrambling to fill that same spot. Their second and third choices have moved on and even if those players haven't committed as of yet, they've built relationships with other programs that have continued to recruit them. The welcome mat may not be rolled out for those coaches trying to get back in the picture. And even if it is, a lot of time and trust has been lost.
Here's where some additional recruits end up impacted by an athlete waffling with her decision. The lack of a warm and fuzzy welcome from their former second and third choices will often lead snubbed coaches to jump into the mix of athletes they previously had no interest in. That attention and those possible options are great for the athletes but not so much for the schools that had been involved in their recruitment from the start. If players they've focused on are suddenly looking elsewhere, the coaches from those bridesmaid schools may have to crash a party further down the line to find the answers to their needs.
That's a lot of athletes, coaches and schools impacted because one teenager changed her mind.
But the real issue isn't actually that she changed her mind. It's that she made an early decision in the first place. Back in the good old days it was letters, then phone calls, followed by home visits, some official campus visits and ultimately, a decision. Early, by definition, back then was a senior making a decision in August before the home visits or canceling remaining official campus visits after she had taken just one or two. Nobody bats an eye today at commitments from athletes who have yet to play a varsity game. I'll be the first to acknowledge that kids are more mature than in the past, but we have 14 year olds making decisions about what they'll need and want at 18. I don't care what generation you're talking about, that's wishful thinking.
The decommitment of prospects and the tremendous growth in the numbers of first-and second-year transfers are an indication that something is seriously flawed in how decisions are being made. Verbal commitments don't actually exist in the eyes of the NCAA and even if they did, it would be impossible to legislate against them. A wink and a promise to offer at the appropriate time, and we're back in the same boat. If more athletes were taking their time in the recruiting process, it's a safe bet that more of them would be getting it right. Maybe it's time to change the process itself.
We just may have reached a point where it's time to do away with signing periods and allow national letters of intent and scholarship agreements to be signed at any time. If that were ever to become the case, I would hope it would come with some real teeth. There would be no more one-year agreements that are renewable annually. They would have to pony up for four years and taking away a scholarship would be next to impossible with the exceptions of failure to perform academically, breaking team rules or insubordination. For the athletes, changing their minds before actually attending a school should carry a severe eligibility penalty. Barring personal loss or extraordinary situations, they should stick with their decision for at least one complete season or pay a price. The intent wouldn't be to take something from the athletes but instead provide them with some incentive to take their time, do their homework and make an informed decision.
Our country is one of the few that actually aligns athletic programs with academics. In doing so, there is an obligation to use such an alignment as a teaching tools and what better lesson to teach than the responsibility of decision-making? It's time to teach the lesson that decisions and choices have implications not just for the one individual player.
The final step in a player's recruiting process isn't simply about being ready to make a commitment. It's about being ready to honor that commitment. There's a big difference, and it's no coincidence the word honor is used to acknowledge the adherence to a choice. That one is in the dictionary, but I'll bet you didn't have to look it up.
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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.