Doing right and wrong by college sports recruits

Today’s Charlotte Observer reports the story of Clair Watkins, a senior basketball player who got one of those coveted “early commitments” from basketball powerhouse Duke. According to the story, Duke offered Ms. Watkins a promise of admission to Duke and a full basketball scholarship, a scholarship that Duke planned to honor for 4 years. It made sense at the time. Ms. Watkins is apparently an honor student and an outstanding athlete.

Recently, though, the Duke coach called and told Ms. Watkins that the program had reconsidered. Although Duke would honor its scholarship commitment to her, she would be consigned to the bench. The story goes on to relate how Ms. Watkins has reopened her college search, hoping to find a good fit between her interest in academics and basketball.

I find this story interesting and complicated. At first blush, it’s all about nasty Duke finding better players for its team and then dumping someone they had aggressively courted. That having been said, Duke apparently is willing to stick by its commitment to a 4 year scholarship if Ms. Watkins still wants to attend. Many schools would simply have withdrawn their scholarship offer, as verbal early commitments are explicitly non-binding.

So, on one hand, I find myself giving Duke respect for keeping its promise of a 4 year scholarship. Indeed, Ms. Watkins might have found herself on the bench anyway. If the Duke coach changed her mind about Ms. Watson because better players had committed to the program, or if other players outplayed Ms. Watson once she got to Duke, she’d have the same experience the Duke coach has now warned about.

On the other hand, I also think that Duke has revealed just how much it values winning basketball games over real decency. The truly decent thing to do would be for Duke to tell Ms. Watson that she needed to elevate her game in order to play, and that the coach was calling to express her commitment to helping Ms. Watson improve. To put this in perspective, should a college call an admitted student to say “We’ve reconsidered. You’ll probably be at the bottom of your class, so maybe you’d like to go elsewhere?” Or, should a college say “We know you will find our curriculum challenging. Here are all of the academic support services that will help you thrive.”? By calling with the cold shoulder, the Duke coach was hoping to get Ms. Watson to give up her scholarship despite Duke’s willingness to honor it. Apparently they didn’t really want her to come to the school unless she would be a star basketball player.

In the end, Duke has given Ms. Watson the form of a good deal without the substance. The school has denied that substance because it wants to recruit better players than someone the coach had previously identified as sufficiently gifted to merit an early scholarship offer. Duke has, despite trying to soften the blow (but not too much – Duke wants her to leave), demonstrated the fundamental cruelty inherent in unofficial early verbal commitments. They allow adults to make sweet promises to minors, take advantage of a teenager’s emotions and immaturity, and then coldly break a kid’s heart.