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Keith Strudler: Look, I Picked A Hat

Today is the biggest day of the year in college football. That may seem odd, since the national championship game was nearly a month ago, and we haven’t even approached spring practice, much less the regular season.

But today is national signing day, when high school athletes officially declare their intentions to play for an institution, when college coaches can finally seal the deal, so to speak. After what’s typically a multi-year courtship with more drama than a season of The Bachelor, top college stars will finally commit to one school and one school only, offering a red rose in the form of a signed contract. With that, five-star football players get a guaranteed one-year renewable scholarship, and the school gets the right to his athletic services. And they can finally stop telling him he’s the greatest human being since FDR. Essentially, this day, which technically lasts for several weeks, ends the charade that this is about more than winning football games. College athletic programs can stop competing against their bitter rivals for 18-year-olds. It’s got all the nuance of a livestock auction, only with more television.

In fact, this once clandestine process is now more publicized than a State of the Union Address. ESPN will dedicate an entire day and network to covering kids making their final decision, which typically happens at a press conference in a high school gym. For the uninitiated, the athlete in question, surrounded by friends and family and whomever else desperately wants to be on T.V., will sit in front of a series of college hats, like it’s a game on The Price Is Right. After gesturing at pretty much all of them, precipitating a series of near heart attacks for head football coaches across the country, he’ll grab one and put on his head. This has become the official indicator, a wedding ring of sorts. So while you still have to sign the katubah to make it legal, it’s the hat that matters.

It's been long argued that this may in fact be height of any football players power, oddly enough.  At the experienced age of 18, he still holds all the cards. That's not entirely true, since any athlete is still limited to playing for free, minus a college scholarship, something that's come under considerable scrutiny in recent years. So he can't go to the highest bidder, but rather the bidder that treats him the nicest and with the fanciest dining hall. But once he signs, and this is a binding document, his future is largely out of his athletic hands. Switching schools costs you a year off. And even if you're one of the fortunate few to go onto the pros after college, that comes through a draft, where setting is completely beyond your control. In many ways, a football player never has more control of his own destiny than right now, sitting in a high school gym in front of a bunch of hats.

The weight of that power is largely lost on athletes and their families. Certainly, there's often the appearance they leverage it, through exorbitant recruiting visits to campus, and in making high paid coaches feel like junior high school boys looking for a date to the dance. But the reality is, first class travel and steak dinners don't change much in the larger power play that is Division I college football. It doesn't guarantee full cost of attendance. It doesn't get them a cut of video game sales. It doesn't ensure students take real classes and get a real education. It doesn't protect anyone from concussions, and it won't help with future medical expenses.

These very things are what some current and former college football players are demanding, people who some years ago sat in front of similar hats at similar press conference in a similar high school gym. Yet the people who would benefit the most from these debates aren't former or even current athletes. It's those kids you're watching today on ESPNU, who are largely making the biggest decision of their entire lives on national television -- something they're not compensated for, by the way. And they never have more power to make it happen than right now, before they sign that piece of paper, not four years later.

I'm not sure how an 18-year-old and his family can recognize this, particularly sitting on the precipice of a life dream, signing a contract to play for a major Division I university. Myself, I'd take the money and run, even if it's not really money, but rather a scholarship. But if they did, and made those demands before signing, well then today really would be the biggest day of the year in college football.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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