I want to laugh, then take a shower

The first thing you should know about USC offering a football scholarship to a 13-year-old quarterback is that the NCAA has practically nothing to say about it.

It launched a presidential task force a few years ago to kick around the idea of stopping coaches from offering scholarships to schoolyard players. It even stressed the harmful effects those offers could have on the kids, who might not work as hard afterward.

In the end, it recommended that "an appropriate and complete study should be conducted." In other words, it put the notion to death by committee. The problem for the NCAA, as usual, was enforcement.

So, if the powers that be aren't going to weigh in, and David Sills' parents think it's fine for their son to pick a college before he chooses a high school, and if new USC coach Lane Kiffin thinks he can evaluate a player while his voice is still changing, where does that leave us?

One place it drops us is into a particularly moronic moment in sports history, a time that makes you laugh and feel dirty all at once.

I was feeling as though I needed to take a shower after mulling Sills' verbal commitment, which was first leaked to ESPN's Shelley Smith by Sills' private quarterback coach, Steve Clarkson.

Clarkson, by the way, charges attendees of his camps $750 a pop, according to his Web site. That's nothing compared with what he has collected over the years from the parents of his star pupils, who have included Matt Barkley, Jimmy Clausen and Ben Roethlisberger.

Maybe somebody could clear it up for me. Is football recruiting turning into AAU basketball? It's always had its dark side, but this seems to have taken it into a new area, one that might involve children's welfare. Why is it always Kiffin pushing recruiting into these dark, shady places? What does he have to gain from Sills' story coming out now?

I decided to check with a couple of the most prominent high school coaches in Southern California, guys who have gone deep into the recruiting process with the game's elite prospects. Bruce Rollinson coached Barkley at Mater Dei in Santa Ana. Bill Redell coached Clausen at Oaks Christian Academy in Westlake Village. They both seemed perplexed by this story.

Rollinson said he could tell when Barkley was in seventh grade that he was going to be something special, so I asked him how he would have reacted if the kid had gotten a scholarship offer back in 2004.

"I think I would have felt the same way I feel today, just, 'You've got to be kidding me. You're serious?'" Rollinson said.
Redell could tell Clausen had Division I potential when he was 15. The recruitment began at the end of Clausen's sophomore year, and coaches were finding subtle ways to show their interest. In the last four or five years, Redell said, universities have been evaluating and making offers to younger and younger players.

He has dozens of schools ready to offer scholarships to his sophomore receiver Jordan Payton.

"To be honest with you, I think the whole thing's out of whack," Redell said. "There's so much money involved today, so many jobs at stake, that they're identifying guys in the seventh and eighth grades. I don't mean to say the staffs at USC and UCLA are going to Pop Warner games, but they're getting wind of guys way early."

As recently as a few years ago, Pete Carroll wouldn't offer scholarships to juniors. When he realized that could dent his USC empire, which had been built largely by recruiting prowess, he relented. Now, apparently, Kiffin is taking things about as far as they can logically go. But he's not alone. Redell said most elite players' recruiting is practically wrapped up during their junior years.

Maybe in a few years, my 3-year-old will have enough arm strength to catch somebody's eye.

Most of the big-time programs rely on scouting services to feed them tape of elite young players. Private instructors like Clarkson seem to be proliferating. It's a bit reminiscent of how the Eastern bloc countries used to control the Olympics. Identify an athletic kid with sturdy legs; get him or her expert instruction in an academy; and voilà, you've got a gold-medal ski jumper six years later. Never mind that the kid had to live a regimented life away from his family and friends.

Redell is in the business of coaching younger kids than Kiffin coaches, but he won't watch tapes of sixth- and seventh-graders, even though people send him about two per week. Apparently, Kiffin isn't so discriminating.

Maybe it all boils down to Kiffin's supreme belief in his own recruiting abilities. He's so sure he's right about Sills (after watching one tape, according to Clarkson) that he's willing to ignore the myriad possibilities the intervening five years could bring. Supposing Sills, who is 6 feet tall, doesn't grow another inch? Supposing he decides he wants to be a concert violinist and loses interest in football?

Or, heaven forbid, what if he gets seriously hurt? Oh wait, that part's easy: Kiffin can just withdraw the scholarship.
"You hear guys say, 'I can look at a kid and tell if he has the 'it' factor,'" Rollinson said. "I'm not sure if you can tell if a kid has the 'it' factor at 13 years old."

Mark Saxon covers USC for ESPNLosAngeles.com.