Coaches navigating new rules pertaining to mission-bound LDS athletes
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.
"He's going to have to recommit and re-sign when he gets home," said Carl Barton.
Sean Barton said that while no coach ever told him that serving a mission was a deal-breaker, some did try to undermine his plan.
"For the most part, coaches were pretty supportive," he said. "But a lot of them tried to change my mind later."
Carl Barton said coaches would "say what we wanted to hear" when the family was together, but then when Sean was alone with coaches, they changed their tactics.
"When they were talking with Sean alone, they'd say things like, 'So how strongly do you feel about going on a mission?' Or, 'You're bigger, faster and stronger than anyone we have starting at linebacker.' "
Often it went "way beyond hinting" that if Barton would skip the mission, he could earn a starting role as a freshman.
"One coach even came to me and said, 'I've talked to Sean and he doesn't seem like he wants to go on a mission that much and we'd like to have him here,' " said Carl Barton.
Sean admitted the enticements were tempting.
"It was a temptation," he said, adding that getting his mission call early in his senior year helped him stay committed to his decision. "It definitely was (a conflict) and, at certain points, I'd think about going to college instead of my mission. A mission is tough to come back from, and two years without football, but I just figured out that I've been blessed with football, so I could give two years of my life to serving other people. Football will still be here when I get back."
Carl Barton said the family gravitated to the programs that understood missionary athletes and supported them with more than verbal niceties. For Sean, that meant focusing on Pac-12 and Mountain West schools because not only did they have more experience with missionary athletes, but they nearly always had specific programs to deal with their unique issues.
The coach assigned to recruit the state of Utah for Stanford is a returned missionary and there are two missionary athletes there now, Carl Barton said.
But there are no guarantees that any school will accommodate a future missionary's plans.
It's not just out-of-state schools that may prefer athletes who don't want to serve missions. Interestingly, Carl Barton said some in-state schools were initially supportive of the idea but then tried to make the mission less appealing to Sean during the recruiting process.
Still, the majority of high school coaches contacted by the Deseret News said it's out-of-state coaches who tell them they're not interested in mission-bound players.
"To some degree, I think it's honest ignorance on their parts," said former Herriman head coach Larry Wilson. "I would think personally, if some of these guys get educated, I think they would see it's a real benefit to them. I think it's just a matter of them not understanding what it really is, (and) are they going to come back to them? There are so many unanswered questions because they have not had that type of experience with it."
Carl Barton said he believes as more schools recruit in Utah, they will come to understand and even incorporate missionaries in their efforts.
"People will gain a level of comfort with it like they have in the past," Barton said. "But I do know that in the last couple of months, many football programs, they tell the coach behind closed doors, 'I don't want to talk to any mission kids.' Some even say, 'No LDS kids,' which seems counter-intuitive, because before there were so many uncertainties. But now if a kid says, 'I'm going on a mission,' they generally go right away."
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