College football recruiting can become, for a sought after recruit, the perfect intersection of where talent meets commoditization; in other words, recruiting is where the athletic talents of the amateur student-athlete attract the attention revenue generating college football programs. Recently, however, an incident between a student-athlete and his mother highlights the conflicting agendas and motivations that people may have in a student-athlete’s life.
Alex Collins is a running back from Plantation, Florida. He’s rated as the fifth best high school running back by a service that evaluates players. A talented player such as Alex will garner national attention from major football programs. Surprising many people who thought he would stay near home at University of Miami, Alex, instead, chose to attend the University of Arkansas.
(Photo by www.atlantablackstar.com)
We have explored in this blog the family law issues that can arise for professional athletes and how their families can create problems and require the intervention of attorneys, if not the police. Alex Collins situation on the National Letter of Intent Day highlighted that it is not just professional athletes who have this issue, but that the interference of family and friends in an athlete’s life really begins in high school and through the college recruiting process.
This year, the earliest a graduating senior could officially commit to play a sport at the college level was on February 5th which has become known as the National Letter of Intent Day. Typically, however, a student-athlete signs their “letter of intent” – which are more appropriately called “grant-in-aid” letters – and commits to playing their sport the following year for a university in exchange for having all or some of their costs covered by the institution. It is an important milestone for a student-athlete that has grown in media coverage over the past several years, so much so that your can find webcam coverage of schools' fax machines as the letters roll in.
Alex’s school scheduled a media event for the morning of February 5th where he could sign his letter of intent, however, it appears his mother disputed the decision so strongly that she took the letter and fled the premises of the school, thereby preventing her son from becoming a Razorback. According to news reports, Alex’s mother wanted her son closer at home at the University of Miami. Speculation ran rampant as to whether there might be more nefarious factors in play (universities and the NCAA have had to deal with inappropriate financial benefits paid to recruits from boosters and third-parties for decades).
The application of this fiasco to family law is unique – Alex is a minor and could not sign his letter of intent and other documents to attend Arkansas without a parent. By taking his letter and refusing to sign it, Alex’s mother was making a last ditch effort to keep her son closer to home (perhaps not her last ditch effort – she’s hired the late Johnnie Cochran’s law firm, The Cochran Firm, to represent the “family’s interests”). Alex’s father subsequently co-signed his letter of intent and Alex – for now – will play at Arkansas next year.
(photo by www.atlantablackstar.com)
It begs the questions: who has the right to sign off on a child’s college choice when they are a minor? How much contact can a school have with a recruit and can a parent bar access to their child?
In Pennsylvania, a child is a minor until they reach eighteen (18) years old and under 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5101, any individual 18 years of age or older shall have the right to enter into binding and legally enforceable contracts. Due to the fact that direct recruiting from college coaches can begin when a student-athletes are in their junior years (written correspondence starts earlier), parents wield varying degrees of influence and can control access to their children by college coaches.
This is a difficult path to navigate for college coaches. Brian Flinn is the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator for Villanova University and identified it as standard policy that all letters of intent and applications must be co-signed by a parent of the recruit if they are a minor. Moreover, he acknowledges the importance of developing rapport with the player and the parents. “It's important for us to be honest and upfront each step of the way so parents can trust us and our programs,” says Flinn.
The stress of recruiting, as highlighted by the Collins situation, is not limited to the kids. “If we haven't built a solid relationship with the prospect and his family we run the risk of losing him when they are overloaded with information - and misinformation - as Signing Day approaches.” The advent of social media, according to Coach Flinn, “opened channels to prospects that were previously unavailable…and has also given opposing coaches access to your committed prospects - making it even more important to build a great relationship with prospects and their families.” In the end, Flinn believes, all of the influences, social media, and attention really has not changed the fundamentals of recruiting: “find the players that best fit your program and left them know, honestly, why your university is the best place for them for the next four years and a foundation for the rest of their lives.”
Under Pennsylvania law, theoretically, the issue of college education is not specifically addressed in the code and is specifically excluded as an expense requiring contribution to by the parents under the Support Code. During the period of time the child is a minor, however, I could see how one parent could leverage their legal custody rights to block a university’s access to their child, or otherwise prevent the child from taking a visit to the school. If Alex Collins lived in Pennsylvania and his parents were separated with joint legal custody, could his mother have sought judicial intervention under the custody order to prevent Alex’s father from signing the letter of intent? Reasonably, it would seem that no matter what the actions of his parents, Alex will be able to attend whatever school he chooses as soon as he turns eighteen; perhaps he would have to wait to officially commit to a school until his birthday, but I can not fathom a court intervening to decide where a student-athlete like Alex would go to school; unlike elementary or high school, the Court would not engage in an educational analysis to see whether one university is better than the other.
Alex Collins situation is an unfortunate combination of the competing interests among the adults in his life interfering with his decision as to where he will attend school. An optimist would say that all of those involved in Alex’s decision have his best interests at heart. That said, based upon the events surrounding his recruitment, perhaps there is a more obvious reason why he’s moving half-way across the country for school?