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Keith Strudler: Grade School To College Football

Want to know what three numbers make most parents sick to the stomach? 5. 2. 9. That 529, the college account where families aspire to store away their extra change in the fading hope they might be able to pay for some small part of their kids’ college education. Granted, it’s a little like trying to climb Mount Everest. You can’t really make it a little a time, and you might just die trying. So, lots of families look for other ways to fund a college education.

Like scholarships. For example, athletic scholarships, where college bound students are given free tuition and room and board in exchange for their services on the fields and courts and tracks and pools. They come in all shapes and sizes, from full rides at major Division I football schools to small, partial scholarships at directional Division II schools in what we call Olympic sports – or the sports no one really watches besides parents. Regardless of the flavor, athletic scholarships are exceptionally difficult to earn and generally come at a considerable price, both before and after their award. For every quarter tennis scholarship, there’s a decade of private lessons and camps and plane trips to tournaments. There is no free lunch, as they say, even at the dining halls.

11-year-old quarterback Titan Lacaden is about to test that hypothesis. The fifth grader from Hawaii was amazingly just offered a full athletic scholarship from his state’s flagship university the University of Hawaii. So, while most kids his age are worried about the state math exam and summer camp, Titan can focus on his freshman dorm and what computer to bring to campus – assuming we still use computers at that point. Hawaii’s coach Nick Rolovich made the verbal offer after a football camp on campus. Titan announced it the way you’d assume any 5th grader would – on twitter. So nothing weird here at all. Just a regular 11-year-old boy pledging his collegiate athletic services on social media. For the record, I’m surprised it wasn’t Snapchat.

Now, Titan isn’t your average 11-year-old, or even your average 11-year-old quarterback. His older brother played college football at Nevada – where Rolovich was then an assistant coach – and his dad Frank is one of the state’s more influential youth and high school football coaches. So not only does Titan get a whole lot of training and attention, it’s also potentially in the best interest of the University of Hawaii football program to have Frank on their side.

Just a few notes about the scholarship offer and some context. Nothing about it is binding. Meaning either Titan or the University can change their mind. So getting an athletic scholarship when you’re 11 is like having your middle school girlfriend promising to marry you when you turn 30. It sounds romantic at the time, but not a whole lot of security. So if Titan suddenly builds an aversion to completing passes, I’m guessing the University of Hawaii football coach in seven years – who is likely not to be Nick Rolovich – may go a different direction. On the other hand, if Titan is as good as they seem to think, I’d guess USC or Oregon might bring him to the mainland. Either way, this is about as secure as a Kardashian marriage.

On top of that, this offer demonstrates just how insignificant academics are in the college sports recruiting process. At no point did the University of Hawaii ask to see Titan’s transcript. And if they did, it would be for grade school, which may not reflect his college aptitude. I’m sure he’s a bright kid, and for all I know he’s headed to Harvard. But don’t pretend school even matters when it comes to building a football program.

Maybe most importantly, this signing does nothing but continue to erode the positive potential of youth sports. It’s bad enough that 11-year-old kids worry about making the travel squad or focus on one sport at the expense of everything else in their lives. It’s much worse when they’re essentially trying out for a college team before they hit middle school. Even if it that tryout is completely non-binding and useless – which it is.

What this scholarship offer, and others like it do, is build a false narrative about why kids are supposedly out there in the first place. When I tell my kids that these sports they do are supposed to be fun, and that’s what’s most important, he can point to Nick Rolovich and coaches like Lane Kiffin before him and tell me I’m wrong. It’s bad enough that college programs rob too many college and high school kids of the joy of sport. Do they have to take it from the grade schoolers as well?

So I say it’s probably time to ban these verbal scholarship offers until, I don’t know, at least Bar Mitzvah age. Which can leave parents to focus on more important things. Like that dreaded 529.

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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