Jeansonne: How young is too young for a college athletic scholarship?

FILE - Eric Berry's 13-year-old brother, Evan, has

FILE - Eric Berry's 13-year-old brother, Evan, has already committed to play football at Tennessee. (Dec. 28, 2009) (Credit: AP)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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Weirder things may be happening in college sports than the recruitment of seventh- and eighth-graders. But when those 12- and 13-year-olds actually commit to scholarships four and five years down the road, thoughtful people reasonably doubt the human ability to envision the distant future.

In the past month, Delaware seventh-grader David Sills made an oral commitment to play football at Southern California and Jahlil Okafor, an eighth-grader from Chesterton, Ind., accepted a basketball scholarship to DePaul.

Randy Taylor, a former All-Big Ten football player at Illinois and now director of the National Collegiate Scouting Association, is among those skeptical that coaches, parents and junior high school athletes involved in such scenarios see the potential hazards around the corner:

The kid could stop growing. Or suffer a major injury. Or lose interest in the sport. Or fail to qualify academically for admission. Or simply change his mind about where he wants to play.

"All those things you can imagine about a 13-year-old," Taylor said. "And another is that the head coach leaves. Or let's say the school you committed to as a 13-year-old brings in another [player at your position in your college freshman year] who turns out to be a four-year All-American."

Still, Taylor, during his days as a college football recruiter himself, twice suggested offering scholarships to eighth-graders (neither accepted, though both became top-drawer college players). And his job now with NCSA entails compiling exhaustive lists of young prospects for all interested colleges, though he also provides information to parents and athletes about the early, high-octane recruiting process.

"We're not necessarily for it or against it," Taylor said. "But it's a reality. We tell them how it is."

In all the reported cases - with Sills, Okafor, then-13-year-old Evan Berry's declaration last year that he was committed to play football at Tennessee - there is nothing in writing. Just as high school juniors make oral agreements to attend one school, only to switch to another when they sign letters of intent as seniors, eighth-graders are legally free to opt out of an oral commitment at any time.

To Ronald Kamm, director of Sports Psychiatry Associates in Oakhurst, N.J., and creator of the mindbodyandsports.com Web site, these kiddie commitments therefore sound like "a publicity stunt. The coach says it and it makes the paper. The kid reciprocates and raises his visibility at the [sports] camps from now until he's a [high school] senior.

"But the negative is that the kid has a bull's-eye on his back; every other kid is gunning for him - 'he thinks he's such a big shot.'

"I worry that it puts tremendous pressure on the child that he doesn't need while he's developing. His own self-esteem becomes so tied to winning and being the best, if he doesn't do that, then where is he?"

At an age when the young athlete's parents should be providing guidance, Kamm said, many instead "push the kids. They see Olympic sports, Tara Lipinski winning the gold medal at 15, Tiger Woods starting at 3, and think it's never too early to go for the golden ring."

Allowing a child to verbally accept a college scholarship as young as 12 or 13, a parent "subtly teaches someone just entering the teenage years that their word won't really mean anything, because in five years, they well may not want to go there," Kamm said. "Parents have to protect their children and guide them, and you can't make a choice at 13 because you don't know who they'll be at 17."

Recruiters offer scholarships at such a young age, Taylor said, so their school will "become the leader in this kid's mind. You're out there; you're first. From the college's standpoint, it's great PR.

"The bad side to it is the kid says 'yes.' Now you're in a situation where there's so much that can happen between now and then - academically, personally, all the hormones. Maybe the kid thinks he's got it made and doesn't work as hard."

It is possible, Taylor said, to spot a college prospect as young as seventh grade. And a scholarship offer "could be a motivating factor to work harder." It is better, he said, to tell the lad to "prepare for high school" rather than college. "And have fun. They're still kids."