By David Brackman
The coronavirus pandemic not only canceled college and high school sports on fields and courts, but it also put a damper on the off-the-field game of recruiting.
College campuses across America were shuttered in the Spring of 2020 and students were sent home. High school prospects could not visit colleges. Many high school students went off campus and online.
Most prep sports seasons that were initially suspended were canceled altogether. No high school or club sports meant that college coaches could not see prospects perform in person, even if they were able to. That’s because on March 15, 2020, just days after canceling its postseason basketball tournaments, the NCAA declared a recruiting “dead period” as the brutal effects of the pandemic mushroomed.
A “Dead Period”
Some NCAA Division I schools forged ahead with a few fall sports amid a phalanx of coronavirus protocols and the completed their College Football Playoff on Jan. 11, 2021. It wasn’t easy.
Despite several postponements and cancelations along the way – including moving the Rose Bowl national semifinal game from California to Texas and a title game crowd of only 14,000 in Florida – Division I leadership had already extended the recruiting dead period for all Division I sports through April 15, 2021. By then, the dead period will have run for 13 months.
The NCAA defines a dead period as a time when “a college coach may not have face-to-face contact with college-bound student-athletes or their parents, and may not watch student-athletes compete or visit their high schools.” However, “coaches may write and telephone student-athletes or their parents during a dead period.”
The NCAA makes distinctions among the terms “dead period,” “quiet period,” “evaluation period” and “contact period”.
Blame it on COVID-19
“The COVID-19 numbers are not trending in the right direction for the Council to allow in-person recruiting and the associated long-distance travel for coaches, prospective student-athletes and their families,” NCAA Division I Council chair M. Grace Calhoun, the director of athletics at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a November announcement extending the dead period to mid-April 2021.
“We acknowledge the impact the restrictions are having on prospective student-athletes and coaches alike, and we will continue to assess how to best balance health and safety concerns with the desire to support (prospective students) and coaches in the recruiting process,” Calhoun added.
A day after the CFP title game, on January 12, 2021, NCAA President Mark Emmert delivered his annual State of College Sports address virtually, a sign of the deleterious effects of the coronavirus on college sports.
“We’ve got to deal with COVID-19, and we’ve got to make sure that in 2021, we’re persistent, we’re disciplined, and we follow the science,” Emmert said. “We’ve got to stay the course until society is safe and our students and coaches can reengage in athletics in the way that we all want to.”
Will the NCAA expand its dead period beyond April 15 and kick the recruiting can down the road again? It depends on how hard the virus hits winter sports and how quickly vaccines are rolled out, as well as the efficacy of those vaccines. The NCAA Division I & II men’s & women’s basketball tournaments are set to conclude the winter sports season in early April, giving decision-makers a little time to decide whether to let the dead period end or extend it.
Silver linings for Division I recruiting
There’s a little life for recruiting in the dead period.
Although in-person visits are prohibited, the NCAA allows “flexibility in virtual recruiting in football by allowing all coaches, full-time school staff members and current students to conduct recruiting calls (telephone calls and video calls) without a countable coach being present. This flexibility includes volunteer coaches in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA)”.
What this means is that communication is still permitted; in-person contact is still taboo. And until the dead period ends, recruiting based on video highlights and communication will have to suffice for the Class of 2021.
NCAA president Emmert acknowledged as much in his Jan. 12 remarks: “We want to get back to college sports in full form in 2021 in a better way than before – not just returning to what we were, but being better than we were before 2020.”
D2 and D3 open for (recruiting) business* as games begin to resume
Although they have been sidelined during the pandemic, Division II and Division III schools are not restricted by the NCAA’s Division I rules. In practice, this means that D2 and D3 schools can recruit in person, although travel budgets have been slashed and many schools have banned travel for recruiting purposes altogether.
* – The exception is that D2 men’s basketball is subject to a dead period from April 1 until noon on April 6, 2021. All other sports are not limited by any dead period.
Many D2 and D3 schools will continue to employ a modified distance learning model (with fewer students on campus) in the new year while sports begin to re-emerge.
It will be a full slate for many D2 and D3 schools, as many sports that were canceled in the fall of 2020 are planning to play a delayed schedule in the spring of 2021. (Many Division I schools, including those that play FCS football, are also trying to make up the postponed Fall 2020 season in Spring 2021.)
Student-athletes hoping to be recruited can focus their efforts on improving their skills in their sport as well as refining their communication skills--both traditional and technical. Think about what you say before you hit the send button. Get your videos together and assemble a file of your best highlights if you have not yet done so.