The Negotiation

Every year high school recruits receive an avalanche of dazzling offers from universities to play football. But in the big business of college athletics, the schools hold the cards—and far too often, the kids face the biggest decision of their lives all alone.
The Negotiation
Photograph by Matt Hawthorne

A coach from Georgia is lurking outside the Kimball High School gym in Dallas. Inside, Justin Manning, a defensive tackle who stands six feet two inches tall and weighs 275 pounds, looks beat.  It’s not his social studies final. No, the kid’s vacant eyes are a sign of the burden—or, you might say, the privilege—of being a highly coveted high school football player. This year, Manning’s school has become a pilgrimage site for college coaches with a story to sell. Manning sighs. “It seems like they’re telling me what I want to hear,” he says. 

Let’s not use the word “recruiting” to describe the strange thing happening to Manning. Recruiting is a fairy tale about a college coach and a kid in a letter sweater. Manning’s situation requires a word that conveys its high stakes, its enormous perils. Let’s call it the Negotiation. The Negotiation is pure business. Manning has a skill that’s valuable to a multibillion-dollar industry called college football. But he is bargaining at a severe disadvantage.

As far as the Negotiation goes, Manning isn’t a novice. In 2005, when he was still in elementary school, his brother DeMarcus Granger was one of the top twenty high school football recruits in the nation. “I remember his mail,” Manning tells me. “These big boxes that were full of mail, and I used to play in them.” Coaches from one school were so desperate to sign Granger, who was also a defensive tackle, that they showed up at Pancho’s Mexican Buffet, where the boys’ mother worked.

Granger eventually committed to the University of Oklahoma, in a ceremony televised on the Dallas Fox affiliate. But he never hit it big in college football. After a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks in 2010 failed to win him an NFL contract, his career petered out. 

So Manning, who is more nimble, with a quicker move into the offensive backfield, stepped up. “My sophomore year,” he remembers, “we’re in a scrimmage against Roosevelt. [Kimball] had another defensive tackle starting in front of me. I had a fantastic scrimmage. I had, like, four tackles back-to-back.” Suddenly Manning found himself starting for Kimball alongside Isiah Norton, a highly regarded defensive tackle who later signed with Colorado State. After Manning’s sophomore season, a Texas A&M assistant coach showed up in person at Kimball and offered him his first scholarship. To date, 22 schools have offered, including Oklahoma, LSU, USC, TCU, and Arkansas. 

As the offers piled up, Manning changed his Twitter bio to read, “I just wanna take my mama out of public housing!” But though a fat NFL contract would change his family’s circumstances, the terms of the Negotiation are stacked against him. Manning is being wooed by, to name but one example, University of Texas coach Mack Brown. Brown makes more than $5 million per year. Since Manning plays defense, he’s also being wooed by UT’s defensive coordinator, the defensive tackles coach, and the Dallas area recruiter. So imagine a boardroom table: On one side sit a CEO and his lieutenants, who together make upward of $6.5 million annually. On the other side sits Manning. He makes nothing.

But it gets worse. Manning is really good; he has a lot of CEOs chasing him. So take the fiduciary relationship above and make it even more perverse: On one side of the table sits a group of men who collectively make at least $50 million annually. On the other side sits Manning, who makes nothing.

“I’m just trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not,” Manning says. 

Coaches aren’t the only ones Manning is dealing with. The media are parties to the Negotiation too. As soon as his classes end in the afternoon, Manning’s cellphone buzzes with calls from recruiting reporters working for websites with names like SoonerScoop and Orangebloods. These sites, which fans like me pay $100 per year to subscribe to, are part of the Rivals network, a collection of college sports message boards and original reporting that was sold to Yahoo in 2007 for a reported $100 million. At least fifty such news organizations are covering Manning. He can remember only one of the reporters’ names. The calls come as late as eleven-thirty at night.

Fans are hounding Manning too. Not long ago, a TCU fan saw him at Macy’s, recognized the name on his letter jacket from a recruiting website, and ran up to give him the Frog sign. A fan from another school, who thought Manning was going to sign with a rival, tweeted at him that he was another overrated recruit from inner-city Dallas. 

Was that weird? I ask Manning. 

“It wasn’t weird,” he says evenly. “It happens all the time.”

The national letter of intent Manning will sign at the culmination of the Negotiation, next February, consists of three pages. Here’s what the fine print says: the coaches promising Manning a starting job are offering him only a one-year scholarship. Though every coach says he wants Manning to get a great education, the seventeen-year-old will be easily fireable. The contract also doesn’t fully explain that if Manning wants to change schools, his ability to transfer can be restricted at the whim of the athletics department.

Is your mom helping you? I ask Manning.

“My mama don’t know too much about college,” he says. “The only school she knows is Oklahoma.”

How about your dad?

Manning exhales in a way that indicates that Dad isn’t around.

Is your coach helping you?

“Nope.”

Justin Manning will make the biggest decision of his young life by himself. And no alarms will go off at NCAA headquarters. No muckraking articles will be written. According to the terms of the Negotiation, it’s perfectly normal for a seventeen-year-old kid to confront a multibillion-dollar industry all alone.

What’s happening to Manning is happening right now to nearly four hundred Texas high school recruits. Some have family members and high school coaches guiding them through the Negotiation. But even in the best-case scenario, none will come

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