What’s a ‘Commit’?

If the Mount Rushmore of 2013-2014 Nebraska decommits has taught us anything, it’s just how much the college football definition of the word “commit” has changed since recruiting services have become more popular. Hunter Dale’s strange saga is just the latest installment.

Unfortunately, the term “commit” has not only become about as ubiquitous as the term “dual-threat quarterback” (another industry favorite) but it’s also equally as subjective. Here in Nebraska, we’ve seen just how different each can be, for better or for worse.

Think of it this way: Johnny Stanton, Jamal Turner and Cody Green were all listed as dual-threat quarterbacks. Likewise, Hunter Dale, Terrell Clinkscales, Marcus McWilson, Hunter Dale and Shawn Bodtman were listed as commits at one point, given the same classification of “commitment” as Zack Darlington, Peyton Newell and Tanner Farmer.

“Since I’m committed to Nebraska, I’ve given the coaches my word that that’s where I’m going, so I’m not even thinking about going to other schools. I don’t even answer phone calls or anything,” Farmer told me last spring before National Signing Day. He didn’t answer calls from other schools, and the letters they sent went straight to the trash.

It’s not the fault of the recruiting services; there aren’t enough words in the English dictionary to describe the varying levels of commitment a 17-year-old kid has to a certain football program. Even 10 years ago before Twitter and recruiting services shifted the paradigm of the attention paid to football recruits, players made signing day decisions and had changes of heart.

They didn’t have 10K-plus followers on Twitter though, or highlight tapes that were viewed tens of thousands of times. The ego stroke isn’t the only thing that changed the landscape of recruiting, however. The documentation is arguably the largest.

Now, it seems more and more “commitments” are an event rather than a pledge. If I sold a Hail Varsity subscription for every tweet from a recruit announcing that he was going to announce his commitment, TIME would be after me as their CEO. Without taking off on a “back in my day” tangent, it’s simply important to realize that the word “commit” has changed with the generations.

In the case of Hunter Dale, his high school, John Curtis Christian School, seems to favor the older generation, when the word “commit” had a more concrete and absolute meaning. Once a John Curtis football player commits, he’s not allowed to take any more visits to other schools. (The fact that this rule is in no way enforceable is a topic for another day)

There doesn’t seem to be a question of whether or not Dale gave a verbal commitment, with multiple outlets, including his hometown New Orleans Advocate reporting the fact with comments straight from the mouth of the 3-star safety himself.

“I just felt like I should be here, and I wanted to get it done with,” Dale told the New Orleans Advocate.

Whether Dale got cold feet, felt like he jumped the gun or was pressured into committing, it is not the place of me or anyone outside of the respective coaching staffs to judge the right and wrong of Dale’s intentions. While the sequence of events – including deleted tweets and all – don’t add up, we can only be sure that he lies somewhere in that vast gray area between “COMMITTED” and not.

You may find his lack of definitive answers or firm pledge frustrating, like many did with former Washington receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow. There’s a fair amount that we even label backing out of a college football “commitment” morally reprehensible. With no perfect solution, it’s hard to indict a kid on a matter with such a mixed bag of reactions that range from outrage to mild disappointment to passive indifference.

If a kid who commits to School “A” decides over a few months that he’d actually rather be at School “B,” does he deserve to be punished? Certainly forcing an athlete to go to a school he doesn’t want to go to just because he changed his mind isn’t the solution. He hasn’t broken say rules.

To add more confusion, you can be sure that the NCAA won’t ever implement a rule system to dictate commitments A.) Because they can’t govern high school athletes off-campus and B.) That’s a can of worms even the NCAA doesn’t want to open.

The sketchy decisions aren’t just coming from the recruits, either. Hard sell pitches are the source of much of the undue pressure that kids feel to make early commitments. The thought of losing an offer from what appears at one time to be a dream school is enough for premature commitments at blue-blood schools with deep recruiting bases like Texas and Alabama. Not all coaches are guilty of hard-sell recruiting, of course.*

Coaches are also guilty of backing out of commitments. You may not have recognized the name Shawn Bodtman listed above with other former Husker commits. That’s because he was one of the rare few that had his scholarship offer revoked by Nebraska just weeks before national signing day. The Bodtman story is unclear, with rumors that he hadn’t been forthcoming about injuries floating just as prominently as the rumors that Nebraska simply didn’t want the kid anymore. Left scrambling to find a scholarship offer, Bodtman signed with the University of Maine.

The frustrated inevitability of recruiting is that despite the growing accuracy and expertise of recruiting services, there simply is no way to know definitively whether an athlete signs with a given school until pen meets paper on National Signing Day (or until day one of the football season, even).

The popularity of recruiting coverage is as apparent as the reasons for it: We want to know sooner and sooner if our team will be good. It’s the same reason Phil Steele, Lindy’s Magazine and Athlon Sports strike it rich with preseason magazines. While the popularity is indisputable, I pose that the value isn’t. As a beat writer that covers the Nebraska football team full-time, I’ll concern myself with a kid when he makes a great play in fall camp or gets his first tackle on special teams, not when he grabs a hat off a table in his high school gym.

Until reform goes through or we see an early signing period for recruits, trying to interpret the abyss of a gray area between a listing of “COMMITTED” and “NOT COMMITTED” hardly seems worth the trouble.

*In my years covering Nebraska, one behind-the-scenes thing I can be sure of is that Nebraska plays the recruiting game straight-laced; no hard sells, no empty promises and complete honesty about playing time.