National Signing Day represents everything that is great about sports.
Unfortunately, it can bring out the worst in people as well.
The first Wednesday of every February has become synonymous with excitement, relief and promise as high school athletes from across the country symbolically secure their playing futures with the simple stroke of a pen. More importantly, they commit themselves to obtaining a higher education — something many might be unable to do without athletics.
It is a milestone in a young person’s life, and the event is often accompanied with a celebration as friends and family attend to share in the moment and show support. Collegiate colors are worn with pride, while smiles, hugs, handshakes and congratulations flow freely.
Weights are lifted from the shoulders of players and their parents. The recruiting process, which can be lengthy and tiresome, is finally over, allowing wide-eyed kids to focus on their futures.
But these moments all too often become tarnished.
For the nation’s elite athletes, offers are plentiful, leaving these young people with a wealth of options. While having multiple choices allows players the freedom to find a perfect fit, it can become overwhelming and go to their heads, as well.
Some extremely coveted players hold press conferences, leaving their finalists to sweat it out until the last possible minute as they sit in front of a row of hats before eventually declaring their choice. It is a trite tradition that works its way into every signing day and speaks to the immaturity of the player.
Then, when the star recruit does not pick a certain team, the public feels entitled to criticize the decision, taking to message boards and social media outlets, where they chastise from afar. Although these particular kids might be making their choice in a controversial and juvenile manner, it is their decision to make, nonetheless, and should be respected.
Sometimes kids flip-flop, decommitting from one school to play for another, which can also draw the ire of fans, who, for some strange reason, are surprised when 17- and 18-year-olds prove to be indecisive. The criticism can get out of hand rather quickly, turning to denigration in the blink of eye.
This is the ugly side of National Signing Day, and it only seems to get worse with each passing year as the world becomes more and more virtual.
Twitter accounts allow the public a path to directly attack players, and YouTube can become the breeding ground for insensitive fans to visually display their displeasure.
The media is largely to blame.
In the name of ratings, website traffic and sales, writers build players up, and television stations make their faces recognizable in households across the nation. The press descends for the announcement of the big decision, feeding the egos of athletes holding collegiate programs hostage until all eyes are on them.
ESPN dedicates programs to tracking player commitments throughout National Signing Day, and various recruiting websites subjectively hand out grades and rankings, treating kids like merchandise.
But, thankfully, this is typically the exception and not the norm.
For a majority of athletes, National Signing Day is the ideal culmination of their high-school careers, occurring with little fanfare beyond local media outlets. It is simply a pure moment of bliss capable of resonating for months to come as they prepare for the next level of competition.
The beauty of National Signing Day is athletes are rewarded for their dedication and hard work. They are accepting a gift that will improve their lives both on and off the field, court or track.
This is not always the focus, but it should be, and when it is not, the true meaning of National Signing Day is lost. The day is a celebration of young people reaping the rewards of years spent striving to excel in sport. Improving college athletic programs is just a byproduct and an insignificant one at that.
Contact Clay Whittington at firstname.lastname@example.org