Coaches navigating new rules pertaining to mission-bound LDS athletes

Published: Monday, Feb. 4 2013 8:00 p.m. MST

WOODS CROSS — Sean Barton believes he was born to play football.

So it wasn't always easy to commit to leaving the game — and everything else familiar to him — to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just a few days after graduating from Woods Cross High.

"I can't see myself living without (football) basically," said the 18-year-old linebacker and wide receiver, who will sign a letter of intent to play for Stanford on Wednesday. "Ever since I was a little kid, my dream was to play college football. That's just my love."

While he is not the first LDS athlete to struggle with that decision and wonder how it will impact his dream of playing sports, he does so in the wake of two changes that have changed how some college coaches view Mormon athletes who intend to serve missions.

The first change is the age at which members of the LDS Church may serve missions. For boys, the age was lowered from 19 to 18, and for girls, it was lowered from 21 to 19. The age changes, announced in the fall, have led to more Mormon young men choosing to serve missions because they can do so right out of high school.

Barton fits into that group. He turned 18 in November and will leave for Benin, West Africa (a French-speaking mission), four days after graduation.

So while he will sign a letter of intent to play for Stanford during Wednesday's national signing day, he will not enroll and will never attend classes before leaving on his mission.

Which is where the second rule — a rule change by the NCAA — affects some players like Barton. Last year, the NCAA reduced the number of scholarships schools can offer incoming freshman to 25.

The convergence of the two changes is reportedly causing some out-of-state college coaches to steer clear of LDS football players planning to serve missions.

"I think it's going to hurt our Utah kids who want to go out of state," said East head coach Brandon Matich.

He feels that way because when two out-of-state coaches visited his school a few weeks ago, they said they weren't interested in any LDS athletes who planned to serve missions.

"They said they didn't have a mission program in place," he said, referring to how schools juggle student-athletes who are gone for two years. One school was reportedly going to test the arrangement on a student-athlete this fall, but the other coach just asked to talk to non-LDS athletes.

Carl Barton, Sean's father, doesn't understand the reluctance of those coaches, especially those out west where most programs are accustomed to dealing with LDS missionary athletes.

"Without any intention of being critical of these coaches, but it seems like a stupid reaction to me," said Carl Barton. "Everything seems more predictable (with the age change)."

Instead of having players for a year, sometimes a year and a half, now most LDS athletes who want to serve missions will go directly to their missions, rather than first having a few semesters of college.

Matich said the new scholarship limits mean that his mission-bound players would sign a letter of acceptance, rather than the more binding letter of intent, which is usually the document signed when a scholarship is being given.

"It's more like a firm handshake is how it was explained to me," said Matich.

Carl Barton said he was told athletes could (and should) still sign letters of intent, but that the scholarship wouldn't count against a school's 25, if the student-athlete didn't enroll in school.

Either way, missionary athletes have to trust that the schools to which they commit will remain committed to them during their two-year hiatus from sports.

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