It's time to throw a flag at Web sites

February 07, 2007|By RICK MAESE

Good morning and welcome to the most hollow day on the sports calendar, when glitter is computer-generated and celebrity cultivated in a basement, when consequences don't exist and when we grade our children like sides of beef.

I hope you bought a new mouse for your computer and took the day off work because National Signing Day has arrived. We've been sleep-deprived for weeks in anticipation, but it's finally time; the nation's top football players show off that fancy education by writing their name on a slip of paper. There aren't enough exclamation points at the punctuation factory to express what this day means to some. And it's completely insane.

The day actually illustrates the dark side of high school and college sports. It's disgusting the way Internet sites that turn a buck off tagging high school athletes with stars have made such strides toward obliterating any innocence still attached to high school sports. The "new media" fan sites inflate kids' egos, steal fans' money and make the job of the high school and college coach much tougher.

The Internet recruiting site is a cottage industry suddenly housed in a virtual mansion. The sites wouldn't exist, of course, if there weren't a demand, so do we blame the college fans who are so thirsty to hear the future might be bright for their favored team?

On the contrary, I feel bad for the fan who's paying money and getting little in return. To see how successful these sites are, I dug up Rivals.com's list of the top 100 recruits from 2002. It includes such stars as Vince Young and Haloti Ngata, as well as such troublemakers as Maurice Clarett and Marcus Vick.

Of Rivals' top 100 players that year, 44 fell far short of expectations - including 18 of the 38 highly acclaimed "five-star" players. While one in five managed to eventually earn first-team all-conference honors, one in four managed to either transfer or quit his team.

While you don't blame Web sites for a talented teenager failing to achieve his potential, you can certainly hold them responsible for building up unrealistic expectations for fans and players.

And you can bet college coaches are sick of three-, four- and five-star players setting foot on campus, thinking they've already accomplished something. Today's football coach juggles more egos than a Hollywood super-agent.

"These kids see this stuff on the Internet - and they're checking it all the time - and they aren't thinking about college; they're thinking about the pros," said Albert Howard, coach at Randallstown. "They're thinking about the jiggy dance they're going to do near the goal post on TV someday."

I called Howard because he had one of the nation's top players two years ago. Melvin Alaeze was once rated as the top defensive end in the country by both Rivals.com and ESPN.com. (And to be fair, Alaeze was named by The Sun as the metro area's best defensive player, too.)

He signed to play for Maryland, but attended prep school when he couldn't qualify academically. The Terps eventually rescinded the scholarship offer after Alaeze was slapped with marijuana-related charges a year ago. He enrolled at Illinois, but flamed out last fall. And just last week, the headlines announced that Alaeze now faces a list of heinous charges, including attempted murder, in connection with an armed robbery.

"These [sites] give some kids unrealistic expectations," Howard said, "but I don't know if that's the case with him. I don't know if [the attention] really affected him. He was already a commodity and he remained level-headed about it all."

I tend to think that giving a teenager any sense of invincibility is harmful, and you just aren't going to convince me that athletes really benefit from this kind of attention at such a young age. These sites - Rivals.com, Scout.com, even SI.com and ESPN.com, have resources and space devoted to recruiting - build false hopes and eat up the time of high school players everywhere.

Let's say a tailback is being recruited by 10 schools. In addition to having 10 coaches call and text and e-mail, the player automatically has "reporters" from 10-20 Web sites also calling regularly to see if he's chosen a school yet. They don't want to take up the player's time - they just want a "scoop" - but the calls add up and take away from school responsibilities.

I'm amazed the NCAA hasn't tried to butt its nose in more. The Internet reporters are often little more than fans with a laptop and an Internet connection. By calling these kids so regularly, overt or otherwise, many are making a pitch for whatever university they cover.

While some regulation is required, we all need to take responsibility for this monster we've created. It's difficult because you don't want to hurt a kid's chance at a scholarship. But we should all remember that no trophies are awarded on signing day, and swallowing everything you read on the Internet is akin to feeding a beast.

We've come to treat recruiting with the fervor of religion, forgetting that it's really an inexact science, one that nowadays does much more harm than good.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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