On the South Carolina Gamecocks, Lorenzo Mauldin, and Oversigning

The topic of oversigning has lately become a major talking point is discussions of college football. Oversigning, in short, occurs when a program signs more recruits than it has room for under the hard cap on 85 total scholarship players with the understanding that it will have to eliminate some scholarship players before August in order to get under 85. A number of voices have spoken out against the practice. The blog oversigning.com was an early critic. More mainstream media types have begun to pick up on the issue, as have a number of coaches, athletic directors, and university presidents who oppose the practice.

The procedures and mathematics can become somewhat complicated, but in essence oversigning is a matter of exploiting the system that's in place in order to put your team in the best position to win. All teams have to remain under the hard cap of 85 players, so teams that oversign must get their numbers right one way or the other. There are several ways to do so. The most common is for a recruit to fail to become academically eligible; most coaches assume that this will be the case for at least some of their recruits and compensate for the academic casualties by oversigning. This may seem like a fairly benign practice, and in many cases it works out without any hiccups. However, if everyone qualifies, problems arise. In this case, coaches must strip players of their scholarships because the program will have to meet the 85-player limit. Some of the more insidious forms of dealing with this difficulty include forcing players to take greyshirts or medical hardship waivers. These are practices that are legitimate in some situations but that are being exploited as loopholes for oversigning purposes. The SEC West has become the poster child for these sorts of practices, with Nick Saban, Les Miles, and Houston Nutt being the strategy's most notorious practitioners. These practices are what have drawn the ire of critics, who view them as exploitative towards the young athletes involved. What's particularly problematic is that it appears that coaches like Saban, Nutt, and Miles oversign under the assumption that they will have to go back on their promises to their recruits, which suggests that they are consciously and intentionally exploiting their players. When a program oversigns by a handful of players, one can reasonably assume that the numbers will work themselves out, but could Nutt have believed that would be the case when he signed a class of 37 in 2009? One assumes not.

This year, the oversigning discussion has come home for us here at South Carolina. Carolina signed 32 players in this class, more than it can take under the 85-player limit, thus drawing the attention of oversigning critics. The stakes of this situation have been turned up by the story of former Carolina commitment Lorenzo Mauldin. A longtime commitment to Carolina, the Carolina coaching staff--worried over the impending numbers crisis--told Mauldin and Jordan Montgomery shortly before National Signing Day that there would not be room for them at Carolina. Now, the national media has picked up on the story in the wake of this Chip Towers Atlanta Journal Constitution piece, which has has painted Mauldin as the poster child of oversigning victims. Like many impoverished African Americans, Mauldin, a ward of the state whose mother has spent time in prison, has had to contend against a challenging home life. Oversigning, the article suggests, preys upon this marginalized population, selling them soft promises and broken dreams in return for improved results on the football field. The fact that Mauldin seems like such a likeable kid makes his story all the sadder.

Continue reading after the jump.

I largely agree with the critics of oversigning. I think a more transparent system with less loopholes would, first of all, level the playing field and, second of all, eliminate coaches' temptation to exploit vulnerable kids like Mauldin. I also don't like to think that our coaching staff is part of the problem. From what I've gathered from various sources, we've handled this situation about as honorably as you can while oversigning. The coaching staff has been fairly upfront with its recruits about their statuses and chose to rescind Mauldin'sand Montgomery's offers because both are highly unlikely to qualify academically. Moreover, the coaching staff has offered these two players the opportunity to join the team at a later date after they spend time in prep school, and I see no reason to believe they won't honor that promise. The coaching staff is still oversigned and will need to eliminate three players before August, but they appear confident that at least three additional recruits will fail to qualify, meaning that we hopefully won't have to resort to the disgraceful practices made famous by the Houston Nutts of the world. However, anything is possible, and something would certainly be wrong with a situation in which hard-luck recruits are actually punished for working their butts off and making the grades they need to become eligible at Carolina. All of which is to say that, again, I'd like a better system in place and for our coach to better explain his actions.

All of that said, there's something about the criticism of oversigning that perturbs me, too. In this column at Get the Picture, Senator Blutarsky makes what I think is a very interesting point: if it wasn't possible to oversign, South Carolina probably would have never taken a chance on Mauldin, suggesting that maybe the system actually benefits Mauldin. Although he doesn't say it in as many words, Mauldin seems to believe that getting to South Carolina is a best-case scenario for him, and it would be hard to argue with that considering that Mauldin's other offers are mostly from programs with inferior academics and athletics. And if Mauldin is OK with the process, where does that leave us? For critics of oversigning, it's irrelevant. If you scroll through the comments on SB's post, you'll see that one of commenters essentially attributes Mauldin's response to the situation to poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance. Yet if oversigning exploits kids like Mauldin, isn't the kind of argument this commenter is making also exploiting Mauldin by not allowing him to have his own say on the matter?

It's appropriate here to acknowledge that many of the critics of oversigning clearly have motives other than the well-being of kids like Mauldin. The aforementioned oversigning.com is written by a Big 10 homer who would presumably like to see his conference's honor restored with some much-needed wins over SEC teams, while the commenter at GTP is a Georgia fan who's likely not too keen on Spurrier and South Carolina's recent success. A kid like Mauldin who is trying to strategically make the most of the opportunities available to him is caught in the middle. For the arguments produced by the two sides, he's more a prop and a placeholder than anything else. That's what's probably most concerning to me about this situation, that in an argument between coaches trying to obtain a competitive advantage and self-righteous opposing fans wanting to take a moral high ground we're actually failing to really address what concerns this kid. I for the record do not believe he's incapable of speaking for himself; in fact, the statements Towers took from him strike me as remarkably self-possessed and articulate for a kid in his situation.

As you can probably see, I'm a bit ambivalent about this situation. I'd like to see oversigning dealt with effectively by the SEC and the NCAA, but I'm also uncertain about the motives of most oversigning critics, who I'd like to see address this situation in a less paternalistic, self-serving manner. So, I wrote it out here at GABA and would like to open it up to conversation. What do you think about oversigning and our situation in the matter?

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