Dream deferred: How COVID changed athletes’ goals of playing college ball

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(NEWS10) — Despite the efforts of educators, students and parents, school just wasn’t the same this year. Remote learning, socially distanced classrooms and virtual activities took away much of the experience for high school students. But COVID-19 took away much more for athletes — the dream of playing Division I sports.

In a packed Albany Academy assembly hall in 2019, Andre Jackson announced his college commitment.  “For the class of 2020, I’ll be joining coach Hurley at UCONN to be a Husky,” Jackson told the crowd.

After hearing that announcement, his younger brother Marcus figured he would be next. “It was a wake-up call, like this is what you want to get to and this is what it looks like,” Marcus thought. And for much of last season, Marcus was well on his way.

He said, “I had some schools looking at me throughout the school season but they wanted to see me play a little bit more in the AAU circuit against some high tier level players to see what I could do there also.”

But then in March, everything changed. Infection rates of coronavirus in New York doubled every day. The NCAA basketball tournament and other sports postponed their seasons. And the country shut down. For Marcus, his future was in jeopardy when the AAU season was canceled.

“I stopped hearing from a good amount of schools,” he said.

Then, athletes and coaches were sidelined during the recruiting period meaning college programs could not host or visit prospective recruits. “The only way we can watch kids is on film,” said former UAlbany head basketball coach Will Brown.

The longtime Division I coach said most college coaches need more than watching film in the recruiting process. “They need to see them play through mistakes. They need to see their body language, their demeanor. How receptive are they to coaching? How receptive are they to hard coaching? How are they with their teammates?” said Brown. He added, “A highlight video where no kid makes a mistake over three minutes, we can’t evaluate a kid based on that.”

Especially a player like Marcus.

“I do all the little things and all the gritty things, and it’s hard to see over a camera,” he said. That compares to his brother, whose high-flying, show-stopping dunks jump off the screen on video. To make matters worse, the NCAA voted to give all collegiate athletes another year of eligibility.

“Two seniors leave and the next thing you know they’re coming back. There’s no scholarships for people to come in. So it just messed everything up for anybody in my class as a junior,” said Jackson.

That includes Schalmont High School’s Rodney Parker who started playing football late in high school.  His coach Joe Whipple calls him a Division I athlete that is not being recruited a lot. “Primarily because of our time, which is unfortunate because he’s a program changer,” said Whipple. Parker said, “I did want to receive a scholarship, but it just didn’t work out that way.”

According to the NCAA, only about two percent of high school athletes are awarded an athletic scholarship. And if the COVID-19 pandemic stunted that number, it wasn’t helped by the new transfer rule. “Now, as long you haven’t already transferred, every college kid can transfer one time and have immediate eligibility,” said Brown.

More than 1,600 men’s basketball players alone entered the portal this offseason. Brown said, “That’s going to hurt high school kids. They’re going to lose opportunities because it’s less of a risk to take a kid that’s already been at a college program for a year.”

But there’s a hint of light at the end of the tunnel for high school athletes. The live recruiting period is opening up in June for the first time in more than a year.  Marcus is holding out hope that he will get his signing ceremony after all, saying, “I absolutely think I have what it takes.”

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