National Signing Day: Hope you enjoy watching the sausage being made

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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Through the looking glass? Taking a picture of someone taking a picture of FSU's Eddie Goldman. (US Presswire)  
Through the looking glass? Taking a picture of someone taking a picture of FSU's Eddie Goldman. (US Presswire)  

I'm not sure anyone ever gets over the first time he or she fully understands the mechanisms and implications of National Letter of Intent Day.

I mean, if you think about it for a minute, it's pretty damned creepy, factories selecting teenagers for their first real mine work. It's glamorous mine work, sure, but it's mine work nonetheless, and only a few really get out alive to go work the bigger mine up the road.

Then, if you think about it for another minute, it is also a staple of the diet of millions of fans who view it as a frontier version of the pro draft, so it has the added benefit of reminding kids, adults and other people that nobody's word is really good when you get right down to it.

In short, it's a hell of an education. Face first, and with blunt force trauma.

I suppose at this point, there is no alternative to the NLI system, as it has perniciously come to be known. Systems don't break down rules that don't make sense, they add levels of new rules, which is why you now have commits and pre-commits and de-commits and oversigns, and why an entire industry has grafted itself onto the process of sorting out the nation's football talent, and why kids get to become national stars by playing a game of three-card monte with hats in front of a bunch of cameras and all their school friends.

Why you get Kevin Hart, for example.

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Hart is the Nevada kid who four years ago created his own recruiting war for himself, picking Cal over Oregon before a school assembly even though neither Cal nor Oregon ever recruited him. He is back now, only this time he has put in a couple of years of community college ball and is now weighing Concordia and Missouri Western.

But this isn't really about Kevin Hart. This is about the way you end up feeling angry and dirty more than you do happy for the kids who just got their college educations kind-of-sort-of paid for. At the end of the day, this is watching the sausage being made, and you have to force yourself to make peace with it of you ever intend to enjoy breakfast again.

This is the way you see how football programs never stop recruiting a kid even if he has made up his mind, and how if they change their minds, the kid is often stuck to go through the process again. The system has a million rules, almost none of which are truly honored. It sells promises backed by the full faith and credit of the Government of Atlantis.

And the best part of all is that the results of the system are such delicious nonsense. Otherwise, why does UCLA do so well on Signing Day but fail to put together consistent football teams? Otherwise, why does Boise State always do so poorly on the February big board and so well on those September and October Saturdays?

That's the funniest part of this -- it's that the system is so hilariously inexact and error-prone. It is as much science as voodoo, a cavalcade of busywork that really shows the recruitment game at its seamiest and least efficient, all at the same time.

And yet it survives. No, it thrives. No it explodes every single year and for months before and after. It is the gift of conversation that keeps on giving, and it is a testament to the notion that everyone makes their own fun, their own way.

In the Northeast and Far West, where football is not king, it is an interesting sidelight. In the South and Midwest, it is the end of the Mayan calendar every year. It is trading cards on crank, only the cards are blank so you really don't know what you've traded for, or traded away. It is a monument to the notion that makes college football what it is -- that it doesn't matter what the item is, or whether I really have a use for it. I need it so I can keep you from having it.

And to its corollary -- if I decide I don't need it, I can just put it in the street, and either someone comes by and takes it, or we wait for trash day.

It is the last truly unregulated industry in America, and it traffics in large teenage boys who are being fought over for the right to entertain you for the possibility of a college education and a stipend of maybe a buck an hour. If this was anything else, Amnesty International would be on it with both feet.

But it isn't. It's college football, and college football is on its own scholarship. No rules, only jewels.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast Sports Bay Area (CSNBayArea.com).

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