Just What Exactly is a Blueshirt?
By Paul Myerberg // May 4, 2011
Hidden inside the New Mexico State team preview was an innocuous question, one raised because of my unfamiliarity with the term: what’s a blueshirt, anyway? As noted in the preview, we’re all familiar with a redshirt, when a player sits out a season yet retains his eligibility; we’re familiar with a greyshirt, when a player delays his enrollment until the year after he signs his Letter of Intent, pushing his scholarship into the following recruiting cycle. As far as I know, the term “blueshirt” is invented by and used only by New Mexico State, which uses it to describe a rather ingenious recruiting practice.
A little history. According to the N.M.S.U. compliance department, “blueshirt” is a term coined by former assistant coach Herb Paterra, who spent the final two seasons of his 46-year coaching career under Hal Mumme from 2005-6. In short, the term is used to signify a player who arrived on campus as a walk-on but has earned his scholarship; every school in the country typically places at least one, perhaps as many as five, former walk-ons on scholarship at the tail end of each season.
So what’s the big deal? Firstly, there were three players listed as blueshirts on the university’s signing day release on Feb. 2: wide receiver Marcus Williams, offensive lineman Kevin Pankey and linebacker Bryan Bonilla. The former pair were JUCO transfers who joined the program the previous fall; Bonilla enters his third year with the program in 2011, having redshirted in 2009 and played sparingly in 2010.
So here’s the rub: Bonilla’s awarded scholarship falls under the typical walk-on-done-good story with which we’re familiar. He arrived on campus in 2009 as a walk-on, redshirted that debut campaign, worked hard to break into the linebacker rotation last fall and has, through talent, hard work and determination, earned one of New Mexico State’s 85 scholarships.
What of Pankey and Williams? Well, each was recruited as JUCO transfers during the 2010 recruiting cycle; neither was given a scholarship during that cycle but joined New Mexico State as preferred walk-ons. Such players are given preferential treatment, at least to a degree: not quite scholarship players, not quite local players off the streets, a prospect like Pankey and Williams will be given access to the program without the financial benefits of being on scholarship.
At least for a few weeks. In the case of Pankey and Williams, both arrived on campus in the fall and were put on scholarship mere weeks later, at the conclusion of New Mexico State’s fall camp. The pair is unlike Bonilla in that regard, seeing that Bonilla had to work his way through two years of walk-on status before earning his scholarship.
What’s the advantage for the players? In the most recent instance, Pankey and Williams received a measure of security; once on scholarship, always on scholarship, at least in the vast majority of cases. And there’s nothing wrong with awarding a scholarship to a walk-on as soon as possible, according to N.C.A.A. bylaws. It’s against the rules to offer a walk-on a future scholarship in writing prior to his arrival on campus, but there’s no evidence that N.M.S.U. did so with either Pankey or Williams.
What’s the advantage for a program? Above all else, the process of assigning a blueshirt pushes a recruit’s scholarship number to the ensuing class, regardless of when he joined the program. Look at it like this: it’s like a greyshirt, but one where the recruit can actually play during his initial semester. A player is part of the 2010 recruiting cycle, for example, plays during the 2010 season yet counts towards the 2011 recruiting class. That’s a blueshirt in a nutshell.
It’s an unquestionable win-win for New Mexico State, which gets all the bang of a recruit without the buck – the scholarship. There’s a reason one person familiar with such a scholarship practice likened it to a “credit card” for recruits. Get the player now, pay for services – not literally pay, but grant his scholarship – down the road.
Illegal? No. Underhanded? It depends. Is N.M.S.U. promising scholarships down the line for preferred walk-ons? Even if that’s the case, there’s really nothing wrong with doing so, to be fair. There’s only a problem with promising that future scholarship in writing in advance. Maybe the Aggies and DeWayne Walker are ahead of the curve, in a way. In the case of Pankey and Williams, it seems, N.M.S.U. found two overlooked prospects, enticed them to enroll in Las Cruces with the promise of a scholarship down the line, and signed both once they joined the program last fall.
It still seems underhanded, if only because while awarding these blueshirts doesn’t break N.C.A.A. rules, it knows where the line between the legal and illegal clearly lies. N.M.S.U. doesn’t take any chances; the program will wait until the recruit arrives on campus to award the scholarship, which, as noted, does two things: pushes back the scholarship while getting the player on the field.
It’s the best of both worlds. So what’s the problem? I can think of two issues. One, that N.M.S.U. found a loophole in the how the N.C.A.A. polices scholarships. Greyshirts were just the beginning; with these blueshirts, the Aggies show how it’s possible to get players on campus, forward their scholarships to the next cycle yet still use them on the field, which is a tremendous development.
Two, what happens if a school like Alabama, Florida or Texas begins doing the same thing? What if Nick Saban could convince a five-star prospect to turn down other offers to attend Alabama, with the promise that he would receive a scholarship the day he arrives on campus? What if Mack Brown could do the same in Texas; wouldn’t the Longhorns be able to clean up even more in the nation’s most talent-rich state?
It’s a loophole, one that must be addressed. There’s nothing wrong with awarding a former walk-on a scholarship; in fact, that’s something we should highlight. There is also technically nothing wrong with awarding a walk-on a scholarship the day he arrives on campus, but it opens up a Pandora’s box of issues if not properly policed.
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