On Wednesday, Josh Perry will sign his letter of intent, fax it in to the Athletic Department, the fax machine will make a weird creaking noise because it only gets used once a year, and then young Mr. Perry will officially be a member of the Ohio State football team, completing a process he started in June of 2010, when he gave his verbal commitment to the Ohio State University. There will be no horns honked, no confetti thrown, and chances are the start of his college football journey will be largely ignored in favor of fluff pieces about Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence.
All according to plan. Josh is a smart kid with a very good GPA and test scores, and making his college choice a year and a half before signing day was probably a conscious decision on his part to avoid what has become a ritualized part of life for major college football recruits: spending the better part of their senior years of high school getting feted and vetted by coaches and fans, culminating in a mass orgy of sexy ladies, endless internet comments, and lens flare heavy highlight reels set to the eternal music of Drowning Pool.
I can see why Josh would do that. At 18 (and 26 for that matter), I just wanted to go about my business, be left alone to enjoy college and not be too bothered by outside distractions. So I can definitely respect someone rejecting the attention and accolades that seem to be the driving force for a lot of high school blue chippers, and there's a pretty good chance that a lot of you reading this feel the same way about the attention we lavish on these 18 year olds.
KIDS THESE DAYS, AM I RIGHT? What with their iPhone 4s and Twitters and Tamagotchis and Lil Waynes and Cooking Dances. Thank God there are still some kids out there with a good head on their shoulders, kids who reject all that fancy goofy crap and hey guess what it turns out we're all old and don't know what we're talking about.
WR Dorial Green-Beckham, possibly the best recruit in the country, has not taken the Josh Perry route. His recruitment has been a tornado, which most recently touched down at Mizzou. DGB is from Missouri himself, so the reaction from Tiger fans was predictably, uh, insane:
Some recognized the peculiarity of the scene, but they said that's what being a fan is about.
Junior Kyle Tons noted that they were cheering for a kid who does not even have a high school degree yet.
"I think it's funny that he's already more famous than I might ever be," Tons jokingly said. "(But) he's the best recruit in the country, and he's from Missouri, and I'm hoping we can show him what Missouri's all about and influence his decision."
So as ridiculous as the reaction to DGB is, this is part of the game now. Okay, maybe not the posters with a players head photoshopped on a mascot's body, but the overall attitude of a conquering Caesar returning home for a Triumph absolutely is, and oftentimes we underestimate the effect that intangibles like this have on recruiting certain players.
The problem is that these supposedly spontaneous displays of affection for recruits can be borderline illegal by NCAA standards.
Tennessee and Lane Kiffin famously got in trouble when some of their hostesses were found to have left campus to attend a high school football game and take pictures with some potential recruits. Marcus Lattimore, who as you probably know did not end up attending Tennessee, described the hostesses as "real pretty, real nice and just real cool."
To most sane adults, the idea of plying someone with pretty women to get them to do something is distasteful and more than a little degrading for all parties involved, but the really gross thing is that Kiffin's SEC opponents weren't angry that he had used that tactic, it's that he had broken a completely arbitrary rule in doing so. In other words, they weren't mad that he did it, they were mad that they weren't going to have the same kind of competitive advantage when they wanted to do it.
Here's the thing: it works like a charm. Kids want to be cool. So do adults. Adults think that they can facilitate their own coolness by making kids think they're cool. So we do whatever weird and/or creepy thing that is necessary to get blue chipper #4123 or 5 star mk.823 to think that they are gigantic stars when in reality they've accomplished incredibly little in grand scheme of things.
And that's okay. Lane Kiffin may be a some miraculous combination of a scumbag, windbag, and douchebag, but as long as coaches and boosters and hostesses aren't doing something illegal or immoral, ultimately there isn't anything wrong with stroking an athlete's ego or an athlete allowing their ego to be stroked. Yes, selling a player to a school is wrong. Promising a job to a family member or coach if a recruit signs with the university is wrong. Promising kids a spot on the roster when you know you're going to greyshirt them is wrong.
On the other hand, hat ceremonies, screaming like loons whenever you see them, having good looking women show them how many basketball courts the rec center has, and telling recruits that they are going to be the next Peyton Manning and Joe Montana combined is stupid. Ideas like affection and love becoming tools of a trade all designed at attracting teenagers to spend four years of their lives at a particular school is kind of sad and also stupid. Texting a kid hundreds of times in a matter of days is REALLY stupid. But it isn't wrong.
I just hope that in a year, or two years, or in a decade, when some of these young men inevitably disappoint us with their actions on or off the field, we remember that we're the ones responsible for their inflated egos and self-absorbtion. As fans, we've spent decades cultivating this idea of 18 year olds as supermen, not in the fun comic book hero sense, but in the creepy Nietzschean sense where we hold them to unrealistic standards that we expect them to embody.
The truth of the matter is that tomorrow, and for the next several years, Josh Perry and Dorial Green-Beckham will have roughly the same chance of succeeding in their chosen sport. Their paths, their yellow brick road, might have been very different, but that doesn't make either of them any more or less of a person or football player; the same gigantic burdens of expectation are going to be placed on their teenaged shoulders either way. We'll tear them down just as readily as we build them up. Hopefully they understand that.