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The College Football Recruiting Matrix: Welcome to the Desert of the Real

As National Signing Day creeps ever closer, the realization that recruiting is the promise that’s never broken


In 2008 Kevin Hart, a 6-foot-4, 315 pound, prep football player in Nevada, had the dream that every decent high school football player in America dreams, of becoming a Division I player. After his junior season at Fernley High School, he received recruiting letters from Washington, Oregon and Nevada and even nicknamed himself "D-1." But because he had a 1.8 grade point average and inexplicably thought it of no use to take the SAT, those schools stopped recruiting him. Too humiliated to let anyone know, he assured his coaches and classmates that he was still a national recruit and continued his lie throughout his senior season of high school.

Then on national signing day in 2008 he announced his college choice, during a packed high school assembly, choosing Cal over Oregon. Asked afterward why he chose Cal, Hart answered: "Coach [Jeff] Tedford and I talked a lot, and the fact that the head coach did most of the recruiting of me kind of gave me a real personal experience with that coach. And we had like a really good relationship."

Kevin Hart

But hours later, a hoax was uncovered. Fernley High School officials were told by Cal that Tedford had never met with or recruited Hart, and when confronted, Hart told yet another lie: He said he'd been duped by a recruiting agent. But he later confessed to that also being a lie and by the end of the week he had become a national pariah.

Kevin Hart seems like a quirk, an outlier, until you pull back a bit and look more broadly at the state of college recruiting in 2017. What exists now, for all intents and purposes, is a recruiting culture that actualizes a Kevin Hart hyperbole paradigm — as in, recruiting is an mélange of kids that on the whole have become more highly proficient at selling the public, recruiting services and college football coaches that they are undoubtedly "D-1" than at playing the game itself. Kevin Hart appears uniquely and egregiously deceptive because he exploited his charade of legitimacy well after any D-1 schools played along. But for many recruits, their judgement day merely occurs later in the timeline, on campus and largely out of the view of the public as they quietly blend into the fabric of a 105 player roster and out of sight of the two-deep chart.

Kirk Ferentz has always appeared to approach recruiting with an eye of skepticism — especially toward the super hyped recruit. This has been largely viewed as an obstacle to greater success. Perhaps it is because he views the recruiting paradigm cynically. After all, he’s experienced his fair share of player deception: Desmond King is a good one. He deceived people — somehow — into believing he might only modestly be D-1. Or, on the other end of the deception spectrum is Dan Doering, who deceived people into believing he was dominantly D-1. And the truth of the matter is this, the line between Kevin Hart and Desmond King and Dan Doering is blurrier now than ever before, and not wholly because of poor, inexact talent scouting.

It wasn’t always like this though. Long before YouTube and recruiting websites were supporting a postmodern recruiting culture, the vast majority of high school football players were pretty much placed on equal footing from the outset: Freshmen unknowns and unprovens, who regardless of high school accomplishment, were understood to have played at a level incomparable to the college level and therefore viewed with a degree of healthy ambivalence by the entire apparatus. Recruits had to work their way onto the college football field before they were able to work their way into the public’s consciousness and initiate any sort of expectations. But, now? Now that cycle has reversed. We have arrived at a point where if a highly rated recruit doesn’t succeed it is the coach who is at fault, not the player and especially not the recruiting service.

According to French cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard (and what good is any football blog if it isn’t espousing some vague semiotic theories in an effort to understand something better), what has happened in postmodern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and mental maps that we’ve lost all contact with the real world that preceded those models and maps. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the models, which now precedes and determines the real world. To put it another way, we’re now dealing mostly with what Baudrillard identified as simulacra. Simulacrum is a copy of a copy, whereas a copy is a copy of an original. Simulacrum is therefore worse than a copy because it has become even further removed from the original.

Baudrillard says when it comes to postmodern simulacra and simulation, "It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real." He’s not merely suggesting that postmodern culture is artificial, because the concept of artificiality still requires some sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. His point, rather, is that we have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature (the real) and artifice. There is no better example of Baudrillard’s notions of simulacrum than the phenomenon known as college football recruiting.

"simulacrum | recruiting | simulation" -- a video by @StoopsMyAss Production.

With Baudrillard in mind it is hard not to view Kirk Ferentz as correct — "you can’t lose something you never had." Or, to bring it more directly into the realm of Baudrillard, you can’t lose reality that’s based on superficial imagery. Kevin Hart was, thanks to the contemporary postmodern recruiting culture that indulges such fantasies, as much a D-1 player as any other high school recruit was a D-1 player, and remained so until he wasn’t any longer.

College football recruiting is now a kind of Disneyland (simulated reality), a virtual theme park where you can spend time injecting yourself into the story. Nowadays any fan can act just like a real recruiter and roam the sidelines of high school football games vis–à–vis YouTube and "scout" prospective football superstars, thanks to their carefully edited highlight videos, shortly after visiting recruiting websites to digest his empirical data in the form of important measurables or read up on the recruit’s latest accomplishments (some of which come from articles written in local newspapers or from press releases by the player’s high school or from the player himself!).

Seeing which college football programs are or are not interested in him just deepens or undermines your confidence in whether he will be a wasted scholarship, back-up, star or a mega-star. By the time he arrives on campus his story has been poured into a mold, fully outlined and fairly hardened, and he will have to, whether he likes it or not (and chances are he will like it because chances are it will be falteringly inflated), live up or down to it from there.

And so, at a certain point, recruits cease to be players any longer. They become like the Mona Lisa, a painting that has been reproduced and whose reproductions have been likewise reproduced, to the point where it has ceased to be a painting of a woman, and has become a painting of itself. It has ceased to represent anything, and now represents simply its own existence. The value of the painting, once derived from its content and beauty, now is simply derived by virtue of being the painting that it is. This replacement of the real with the virtual is another step towards society being replaced with its own simulation. The Mona Lisa is no longer a painting, but is now a simulation of a painting, in fact a simulation of itself.

If it sounds like I’m making an argument on behalf of Kirk Ferentz’s recruiting skepticism, I’m not. But I am no longer going to critique his outlook either. Every year Kirk makes a valiant effort to push back against a postmodern phenomenon that has overwhelmed the recruiting process over the past 30 years. He’s trying to convince fans to look beyond the hype and the artifice, and it’s not easy because the hype and artifice has become so orthodox. Skepticism within the postmodern recruiting paradigm nowadays is reserved for the party poopers and antiquated curmudgeons.

This season’s recruiting sagas have taught me a lesson though. Just because I played dress-up and roamed the sidelines watching recruits do the spectacular on YouTube videos, that experience is nevertheless ersatz. I’m closer to knowing less from that experience than I am knowing more. It is far more likely these polished, partial viewpoints I’m exposed to are deceiving me rather than enlightening me, because the only thing that is truthful in this transaction is the copy of the copy reality of the experience.