In today’s sports world, students are offered full scholarships before they have taken their first College Boards, or even the Preliminary SAT exams. Coaches at colleges large and small flock to watch 13- and 14-year-old girls who they hope will fill out their future rosters. This is happening despite N.C.A.A. rules that appear to explicitly prohibit it.
The heated race to recruit ever younger players has drastically accelerated over the last five years, according to the coaches involved. It is generally traced back to the professionalization of college and youth sports, a shift that has transformed soccer and other recreational sports from after-school activities into regimens requiring strength coaches and managers.
The practice has attracted little public notice, except when it has occasionally happened in football and in basketball. But a review of recruiting data and interviews with coaches indicate that it is actually occurring much more frequently in sports that never make a dime for their colleges.
Early scouting has also become more prevalent in women’s sports than men’s, in part because girls mature sooner than boys. But coaches say it is also an unintended consequence of Title IX, the federal law that requires equal spending on men’s and women’s sports. Colleges have sharply increased the number of women’s sports scholarships they offer, leading to a growing number of coaches chasing talent pools that have not expanded as quickly. In soccer, for instance, there are 322 women’s soccer teams in the highest division, up from 82 in 1990. There are now 204 men’s soccer teams.
“In women’s soccer, there are more scholarships than there are good players,” said Peter Albright, the coach at Richmond and a regular critic of early recruiting. “In men’s sports, it’s the opposite.”
While women’s soccer is generally viewed as having led the way in early recruiting, lacrosse, volleyball and field hockey have been following and occasionally surpassing it, and other women’s and men’s sports are becoming involved each year when coaches realize a possibility of getting an edge.
Precise numbers are difficult to come by, but an analysis done for The New York Times by the National Collegiate Scouting Association, a company that consults with families on the recruiting process, shows that while only 5 percent of men’s basketball players and 4 percent of football players who use the company commit to colleges early — before the official recruiting process begins — the numbers are 36 percent in women’s lacrosse and 24 percent in women’s soccer.
At universities with elite teams like North Carolina and Texas, the rosters are almost entirely filled by the time official recruiting begins.
While the fierce competition for good female players encourages the pursuit of younger recruits, men’s soccer has retained a comparably relaxed rhythm — only 8 percent of N.C.S.A.’s male soccer athletes commit early.
For girls and boys, the trend is gaining steam despite the unhappiness of many of the coaches and parents who are most heavily involved, many of whom worry about the psychological and physical toll it is taking on youngsters.