(Meat) Market Failure


All across the nation today, 17 and 18-year-old males will be signing and faxing in their letter of intent to play college football. Tuition, books, room and board, a food stipend, and unbelievable exposure to big-time alumni connections for future job prospects accompany each scholarship.

That chance to compete for a starting spot right away; the chance to shine and win a Heisman Trophy; the chance to wear the coolest, flashest uniform and be seen on ESPN, ultimately having the opportunity to make it to the NFL. For two-to-three years prior, the best high school football players have received hundreds of letters from some of the top college football programs detailing why they should consider playing at Notre Dame, the University of Southern California, Alabama, Texas, or Oklahoma. 

They have received phone call after phone call; text after text; and in-house visits from coaches and recruiters representing these schools, not to mention the on-campus visits with all expenses paid by the school in attempts to entice these talented athletes to spend four years (at least, hypothetically) representing the university or college on the gridiron.

Big money is devoted to recruiting: in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the University of Tennessee spent an average of $1.15 million a year on recruiting from 2005 – 2008. The return on investment hasn’t exactly panned out, unless you count a high arrest rate as a some kind of off-the-field victory. And a pitiful graduation rate—well, unless you include White players—for those highly sought after, Black recruits, the majority of who have no business attending the university save for their perceived athletic superiority.

Thus far, one writer has documented the insanity surrounding the recruiting business. In Meat Market, Bruce Feldman shows us the insane lengths that the football coaches at the University of Mississippi will go in trying to secure the top high-school (or junior-college) talent in America.

Worse, he shows how an entire industry has grown around recruiting high-school players, and the financial windfall investors and businessmen have made. Knowing that die-hard fans, students, and alumni of your Georgias, North Carolinas, Auburns, and Ohio States will dish out big money to follow the latest rumors of who might be signing on to represent their school, many a fortune has been made by the people behind Rivals.com, Scout.com, and SuperPrep.com.

With the possible exception of auctions and porn, not other business is better suited to the Internet than college football recruiting.

Jim Hackman, a Seattle-based entrepreneur, founded Rivals.com in 1998. His plan was for every program to have its own team site with a reporter covering recruiting, and an active message board. Better still, the team sites would be connected, to share relevant information pertaining to a certain recruit.

With three years, Rivals.com went bankrupt.

In 2001, Bobby Burton, a Texan who’d been the editor-in-chief of National Recruiting Advisor, a magazine geared toward recruiting, scarfed up Rivals. He and his two partners repackaged the network by beefing up their recruiting database to include everything from a recruit’s 40-yard dash time to his GPA to which schools were recruiting him. For $9.95 a month, a fan could learn about the players his team was recruiting, what the kids thought of their official visits to Old State U., and download highlights of the players.

Hackman, meanwhile, turned around and created a competitor to Rivals called Scout Media, which he later sold to Fox for a reported $60 million.

The two networks, hubs to hundreds of satellite sites such as Gatorbait.net, Irisheyes.com, and OMSspirit.com, hit a nerve just like fantasy sports did a decade or so ago.

Evidence? On Signing Day in 2007, Rivals.com claimed a staggering 75.4 million page views—almost five times the number MSNBC.com had drawn on its Election Night coverage a few months earlier.

It would be wrong not to mention the professional recruiting services that college football programs spend tens of thousands of dollars upon a year to stay abreast of the top talent at the high school level. The California JC Report (cost: $800 a year); The Texas Film Service, providing information on every high school in the state (cost: $5,000 a year) to Thomas’ LRSSports; to scores of other services, many run by former coaches and players, all willing to barter information on potential recruits for hundreds to thousands of dollars in return.

But again, just look at the insane number of subscribers that Rivals and Scout have to services that merely provide the athletic metrics (40-yard-dash time, bench press, squat, etc.) of a 15, 16, 17, or 18-year-old, who, more than likely, will end up signing with another school or fail to qualify academically:

Rivals.com and Scout.com fiercely struggle over Web users, subscriptions and exclusive naming rights to high school allstar games. Both offer college sports news, but recruiting—on national sites and affiliated team sites operated by individual publishers—is their bread and butter. They both charge $9.95 for monthly subscriptions separate from free content, and each generated more than $10 million in revenue during 2004.

Rivals.com claims more than 150,000 subscribers; Scout.com says its subscriber base stands at more than 200,000. Now ESPN.com is joining the fray.

''I presented the Rivals model to ESPN in 1995 and offered to build it for them,'' Scout.com chief executive Jim Heckman said, laughing. ''Their answer was, 'There's just, at best, a few thousand people interested in recruiting. We're not interested.' Pretty much everybody didn't understand how big this was.''

Scout and Rivals have changed college football. The talent evaluations they perform (rating recruits on a scale of 1 – 5, with 5 being the best) have turned college football programs into sharks looking to secure commitments from the elusive Five Star star athletes who can come in and make an impact immediately.

Recall that Scout and Rivals start to evaluate high school talent as early as freshmen year of high school. Also note that college football coaches of old, before the days of the Internet and recruiting services, relied on networks of coaches and alumni to provide game tapes of potential recruits.

It’s with this thought in mind that we point out that of the top 100 Scout and Rivals high- school prospects (and those players selected to the play in the prestigious Under Armour All-American game, almost 90 percent of them are Black athletes.

Why is this?

Former Auburn University coach Pat Dye wrote in his autobiography, In the Arena—interestingly written, in part, as a response to allegations of racism from Black recruit Eric Ramsey—this about Black athletes:

Another thing I found, I already knew: we live in an age, and it will probably last forever, where the black kids in this region make the difference in football. If there are 10 college prospects in Alabama, seven are gonna be black.

Looking at the current rosters of Auburn and Alabama, Dye’s comment seems to hold true. Both schools boast overwhelmingly White student populations, but both have a disproportionate amount of Black athletes (to the general Black male populations of the school). This holds true for most major schools.

Remember that Rivals and Scout start to evaluate talent as early as the freshmen and sophomore year of high school player, providing star ratings to young men still developing and maturing. Or are they?

In Jon Entine now-classic study Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, he spends the majority of tome talking about why Blacks are better athletes than whites. In passing he notes, curiously:

It’s hardly an irrational leap to suspect that precocious infants will end up as athletically skilled adults, however. Blacks and white do develop different body types at an early age. Numerous studies have found that by age five or six black children consistently excel in the dash, the long jump, and the high jump, all of which require a short burst. By the time boys are teenagers, blacks demonstrate a significantly faster patellar tendon reflex time—the knee jerk response—and an edge in reaction time over whites.

Put simply, Black athletes mature faster than White athletes. In Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective, J. Phillippe Rushton includes a chapter on Speed of Maturation, which points out that study after study concludes Black people go through puberty well before white people, reaching full sexual maturity at astonishingly young ages. Could this be the reason former Florida State football coach made this remark regarding the paucity of White high-school talent?:

An athlete is an athlete, but, dang it, there just seem to be more black athletes than white," says Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden. "We've got a [white] phenomenon on our team, a quarterback named Danny Kendra, whose vertical jump is 39½ inches—more than anybody else we've got. He bench-presses 425 pounds, and his leg press broke the school record. He runs a 4.5 40. But there ain't many like him. And my thinking is that there's a whole lot more blacks who can do that than white guys.

Why does this matter? Why mention race at all in a discussion of college football recruiting?

Mike Freeman’s Bowden: How Bobby Bowden Forged a Football Dynasty provides the answer. His chapter Law and Order establishes that the majority of the at-risk students that college-football programs recruit are these Black athletes who have matured physically faster than white athletes, though their mental acumen will forever see a gap remain (as noted by graduation rate racial disparities, despite the same amount of tutoring). Bowden built his reputation, like that of Penn State’s Joe Paterno, on the backs of academically challenged, athletically gifted Black athletes.

This presents a problem: though athletically gifted (thanks to a genetic clock that allows them to mature faster), Black athletes perform inadequately in the classroom. Many boast embarrassingly poor high-school GPAs and standardized-test scores and require special admission to be enrolled into the schools like Florida or Florida State. Though the white athletes being evaluated at Scout and Rivals haven’t reached physical maturity, they perform far better on the academic side of the ball. This is one of the primary reasons the U.S. Military Academies (Army, Navy, and Air Force) have remained so White, when most other big-time college football programs field majority Black teams: put simply, potential Black recruits don’t have the intelligence to get accepted or complete the work once enrolled at these schools.

So the question must be asked: Is there a bias at the big-time college football programs toward Black athletes, since the recruiting services have started evaluating players at ages when the early physical maturation of Blacks give them a pronounced advantage over White players? Well, yes there is.

Tom Lemming, one of the pioneers of evaluating high school football talent, told Michael Lewis in his book The Blind Sidethat White high-school athletes were discriminated against by college scouts and coaches because they couldn't possibly be as a fast as black athletes. He said the same thing to The Chicago Sun Times, By Taylor Bell; he said the same thing to the South Bend Tribune.

Consider that two of the top receivers in the National Football League (NFL), the Green Bay Packers Jordy Nelson and the New England Patriot’s Wes Welker, went virtually un- recruited out of high school. Welker—who was Oklahoma’s High School Player of the Year his senior season—got a scholarship to Texas Tech. Nelson had to walk-on at Kansas State. Both are White athletes.

Consider that arguably the best linebacker in the NFL, the Packer’s Clay Matthews, was a walk-on at the University of Southern California and didn’t even see the field until his senior year. In the October 2011 issue of Muscle and Fitness magazine, Matthews let slip a crucial point:

There’s this kid you know. A high school senior. Plays football hard, but he’s nothing special on the field. He’s around six feet in cleats, maybe tops out at 200 pounds after dinner, and he’s neither fast enough to be anyone’s idea of a bit-time, blue-chip prospect.

“I knew I wanted to play at USC from when I was a kid,” he [Matthews said, though he’d have to walk-on for this dream to occur] said.

“I told him to go for it,” says Charlie Wegher, who’s coached football at Agoura High for the past 18 years, “but honestly, I didn’t think he’d get a chance to play much because USC doesn’t typically have those kinds of kids.”

So Matthews wasn’t a Rivals or Scout “Five Star” athlete, a “can’t miss” prospect with an NFL-ready future stamped on him before he even played a down of college football, like the many high-school athletes who will be signing with big-time colleges and universities around the nation today. 

He was one of “those kinds of kids.” Meaning one of those often overlooked White kids from the suburbs who hasn’t physically matured yet, at least compared to the seemingly extra-ordinary Black athletes that Rivals and Scout have evaluated as the top talent of the 2012 high school crop.

Something tells me there is a market for undervalued White players that aren’t highly sought after commodities by the big-time schools only on the prowl for academically marginal Black athletes to use and abuse for football glory.

Knowing that the New England Patriots Bill Belichick has built a franchise based around undervalued White talent, the smaller college football programs, without massive budgets to spend on hyped high-school athletes, and which hope to keep up with the Michigans, Oregons, LSUs should start considering cultivating White athletic talent that has been overlooked by recruiting services in favor of the low-hanging fruit we should just call “Darwin’s Athlete’s.”

For one thing, signing undervalued White high school talent will require less of an investment in academics and an even less amount of money to pay for their unnecessary legal teams (consider the high rate of arrests for Black players at UGA, Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Penn State).

Another thing, if you’re a fan or alumni of one of these schools, you can spend less time on one of the recruiting services like Rivals or Scout, which has gone “all in” on the belief in Black athletic supremacy—truly, one of the most common “social constructs” of our time.

Until a service comes along to evaluate undervalued White players, you have to wonder how many talented suburban players or fly-over country athletes (like Welker and Nelson were) aren’t being courted by big-time schools tomorrow. How many potential NFL linebackers like Matthews, who haven’t physically matured yet, are out there and devoid of a scholarship offer? All because they are one of “those kinds of kids?” Not one of Darwin’s Athletes. Just some white kid.

As Tom Lemming said, “hundreds.”