There’s a very poignant moment at the outset of Season 4, Episode 10 of Saved By the Bell, an episode entitled Wrestling with the Future. The moment harkens back to a simpler time, when the college recruiting process wasn’t nearly as shady, complicated, overblown, or commercialized as it is now. It recalls an era that existed prior to the ESPNs of the world smearing their greasy fingerprints all over the one day of the year that teenagers sign the remainder of their adolescence over to a university and an athletics program, that lived before those same teenagers would sit under the lights of a crowded gymnasium and select baseball caps off a table.
It is in this moment in that particular episode of television’s greatest and most influential program (ever, in history) that the following occurs:
A man in a sport coat swings open the door to The Max, everyone’s favorite after-school burger joint. He looks around, then spots the recruit he’s been tasked with locating sitting before him at a booth with his friends. At very nearly the same instant, the recruit spots the man in the sport coat in the doorway. “That’s Jeff Tramer,” says the recruit to his friends, “the wrestling coach at the University of Iowa.”
The man in the sport coat glides across the room and introduces himself to the recruit. “A.C.,” he begins, “I’m Jeff Tramer.” And then without hesitation, “I’m here to offer you a full wrestling scholarship to the University of Iowa.”
There is a pause before the man in the sport coat asks, “Well, what do you say?”
“Huh? Oh, I say great! Thank you!” replies the stunned recruit.
Beaming, his mission a success, the man in the sport coat starts to leave. “I’ll put that paper in the mail tomorrow,” he says. “See you in September. You’ll love Iowa.”
It takes no more than a minute for one of the nation’s premier wrestling programs to land Albert Clifford Slater, one of the best wrestlers (we can assume) in Southern California. The interaction is far too quick, far too ridiculous, and far too scripted for us to think real. Yet if Jeff Tramer’s forty-second pursuit of Bayside High School’s most legendary athlete is on one end of the spectrum of outlandishness, then everything about the recruiting process that we endure today, in all its goofy glory, must certainly be on the other.
So what is it about the recruiting process that embodies such stupidity?
First of all, no one should trust a high school kid to make a binding agreement that he’ll be happy about months, weeks, or even days down the road. Your average teenager is as mercurial as a chameleon and doesn’t exactly understand the implications that come with telling an adult “yes” or “no.” (Think about all the times you uttered those two words of confirmation to your parents as a kid. How often were you bullshitting out your ass, simply lying to protect yourself or someone else? All the damn time.)
Funny thing is, though, in today’s era of internet sensationalism and the 24/7 news cycle, we not only put our faith in these kids, we submit ourselves to riding the roller coaster that is their decision-making process. They commit and decommit and recommit and we willingly tag along for the journey. We’re lemmings for this shit, falling off cliffs then climbing right back up the hillside to do it all over again.
If fans are to blame for buying into this odyssey of college recruiting, then the media is certainly at fault for delivering it in such bombastic fashion. Were it not for ESPN, FSN, Scout.com, Rivals.com, and more, we wouldn’t be exposed to this mindless nonsense every single day of the year. Perhaps the national outlets are just giving consumers what they want, or maybe they’re bringing this madness to consumers who didn’t even know they wanted it in the first place. It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario that, regardless of its origin, is profitable for the people pulling the strings, puppeteering both the stars of the show (the recruits) and the audience (the fans) at the same time.
And then you have the kids and their families.
My god, if you would have told me at age 17 that I was going to be on TV, I’d probably show up naked and giddy amidst the delirium of such exciting news. I imagine that’s how most teenaged recruits react when faced with the prospect of making their college decisions before a television viewing audience.
Recruits don’t think about the consequences of their imminent actions because, frankly, they aren’t thinking clearly. They don’t realize that when they eliminate all but one school from their list of finalists, they’ll have thousands upon thousands of insane, mouth-breathing sports fans across the country who absolutely hate them. And then to make matters worse, thanks to the spectacle of this charade they’ve broadcast across the nation, they don’t understand that should they fail to live up to the hype they’ve now created for themselves, the insane, mouth-breathing sports fans from their own school will begin to hate them, too — and yes, I realize that in despising, say, Abdul Gaddy, I’ve categorized myself among the insane and mouth-breathing, which is fine.
At 17, everyone expects a highly sought-after recruit to become Mr. All-Everything in college. Should he carry out the commitment process the way we’ve come to expect, and should he not evolve into Mr. All-Everything after that, he will be labeled a failure by the masses. All because he fell victim to a media frenzy that, fairly or unfairly, put the spotlight squarely on his mug.
Branded a failure by age 22 is no place for a young adult to be, but it’s where so many of these recruits ultimately end up. Who’s looking out for them? Their parents? No, their parents are often part of the hype machine. Their high school coaches? No, because the high school coaches see the attention shining down upon their star player as a much-needed boost to their own pride and joy (i.e., ego). Should recruits be responsible for looking out for themselves? As teenagers? We’re all responsible for our own well-being to some degree, but who’s really to say. Does a kid who’s spent much of his life being coddled by a society that extends benefits to elite athletes have the ability to protect himself from scrutiny? Unlikely. So really, what we’re dealing with here is anarchy.
We’re probably better than this. Or maybe we’re not. I mean, we devour reality TV like it’s oxygen, then pay witness to the failures of others because we can’t succeed ourselves. We enjoy that. We thrive on that. And if there’s anything more reality-based than a high school recruit playing a game show with fans and hats and colleges, I’m not sure we’ve seen it yet.
This is The Bachelor with universities instead of girls and caps instead of roses. It’s Survivor with an adolescent as the million-dollar prize that each school, as a contestant, is vying for. This is so stupid it should be scripted. And it almost is. Until the broadcast ends and the unscripted part of the show really begins to take shape.
For every successful college athlete, there are at least three or four or five more busts. And those busts — as a result of a process they, their parents, their family members, their coaches, their high schools, their friends, their fans, their future fans, EVERYONE — fully buy into, are led down a dead-end path that brings with it a ton of negativity.
Signing Day and all that it entails is no dumber than the idea of an actor walking onto a brightly-lit studio set and making a two-sentence sales pitch to another actor in a tank top. Only problem is, if you don’t like it, you can’t change the channel.
Happy National Letter of Intent Day.