The Compliance Column: Coaches Get Creative With Virtual Recruiting During the Pandemic

By Nöel Couch

For the world at large, it seems that COVID-19 was one of the most prevalent words of the past year. For the NCAA DI college athletics, it seems that “recruiting dead period” was also one of the most frequently uttered phrases. The recruiting dead period is not a new concept. It has been included in NCAA legislation for many years. However, the extended time period of its occurrence is the novel situation for which college coaches and student-athletes have had to adjust.

What is a recruiting dead period? The NCAA categorizes periods of recruiting activities, including but not limited to a contact period, an evaluation period, a quiet period, a dead period and a recruiting shutdown. During a dead period, coaches may not make in-person recruiting contacts or evaluations on or off campus. Additionally, prospective student-athletes may not take official or unofficial visits. However, coaches and staff may write or telephone a prospect.

The NCAA DI Council initially made the decision to implement the recruiting dead period at the onset of the pandemic. It is one way the NCAA DI membership may be able to avoid the unnecessary health and safety risks associated with travel and in-person interactions during recruiting activities. In contrast to the typical pomp and circumstance surrounding recruiting visits, the college recruiting process has been tempered for the time being, and like most activities in the world today, has gone virtual.

Back in March 2020, the DI Council Coordination Committee announced the dead period would be in place until at least April 15. That date was continually extended over the following months until, most recently at its November meeting, the Committee extended the dead period until at least April 15, 2021.

In-person recruiting visits, for both prospects and college coaches present opportunities to make genuine connections and share important information. Moreover, when a prospect sets foot on a college campus, he or she has the opportunity to truly get a sense for whether “this is the one.”

Because in-person recruiting has been hampered by the pandemic, coaches have turned to virtual recruiting in an attempt to impart upon student-athletes a sense that they belong at that university. Recruiting during the COVID-19 dead period has produced a variety of new rules that coaches must adhere to when contacting prospects. Coaches and staff have creatively turned to FaceTime calls, social media and online resources to remain steadfast in their pursuits to recruit the next best class. 

It is remarkable that a prospect, for example, a gymnast in the class of 2021, may have signed her National Letter of Intent (NLI) without seeing the team locker room in person, without putting her hands on a balance beam in the training facility, without hosting her future coach for a home visit or without attending a football game on her official visit. Nevertheless, coaches and prospects have figured out a way to make virtual recruiting work.

What do the rules of virtual recruiting entail? For starters, the standard time periods for which contacts may occur between coaches and prospects still apply, and the rules are different for each sport. For gymnastics, June 15 following a gymnast’s sophomore year of high school is a benchmark date. Before that date, generally a coach may not provide recruiting materials, including general correspondence related to athletics; may not send electronic correspondence; and may not call or receive calls from a gymnast or her family. On and after that date, the coach or prospect may initiate calls via both phone and video.

The recruiting rules restrain in-person interactions, but they also provide opportunities. Below are a few rules that exemplify what the rules both prohibit and permit when it comes to virtual recruiting.

✕   During the COVID-19 recruiting dead period, a coach may not engage in off-campus recruiting activities, for example, visiting a gymnast’s training facility to observe practice.
✓   A coach may watch a livestream event of prospects, provided certain criteria are met. 

✕   An uncommitted prospect may not participate in virtual team activities.
✓   An uncommitted prospect may virtually observe a virtual or live team activity once per institution. This opportunity only exists during the temporary COVID-19 dead period.

✕   A prospect who has signed an NLI may not take an official or unofficial visit.
✓   A prospect may attend a home athletics event, for example a gymnastics meet, if she purchases a ticket in the same manner as the general public.

✕   A coach may not provide an in-person tour of campus, including for example, a tour that includes taking the prospect to see the gymnastics training facility, locker room, dorms or dining hall.
✓   A coach may FaceTime with a prospect who is not on campus to provide a live virtual tour. Additionally, a prospect may receive an in-person tour from an institutional staff member outside athletics, such as the admissions department.

✕   A coach may not conduct and share a team practice via video call (e.g., Zoom)  where prospects participate in real time.
✓   A college strength and conditioning coach may post examples of workouts to social media and allow prospects to view them, provided the social media account is open to the general public and the workout is not designed for a specific individual.

The extended dead period is a unique concept that has its pros and cons. Both coaches and prospects are saving time and money by adhering to the virtual process. Perhaps some of the virtual recruiting trends will stick around once the dead period ceases.

Alternatively, coaches and prospects may believe there is a priceless value to in-person contacts. Perhaps both will be eager to book flights and set foot on training facilities and campuses nationwide. Just as the term “COVID-19” will eventually be used less frequently, the “extended recruiting dead period” will also become a term of the past. For now, coaches and prospects safely press on with virtual recruiting. Check back for a new article when the NCAA transitions out of the dead period.

This article provides a general overview of virtual recruiting for college gymnastics fans. Information should not be relied upon for engaging in recruiting activities. Specific rules involving regulations and prohibited activities are not included for purposes of clarity and comprehension. Amendments to the legislation may have occurred since this article was published.

Noël Couch is the director of compliance for Sacred Heart University athletics in Fairfield, Connecticut. She earned her J.D. from the University of Georgia School of Law in 2018. Prior to that she was a five-time All-American gymnast for the University of Georgia Gymdogs.

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