USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Joe Leccesi is a former college-athlete and coach at the NAIA level, where he earned an NAIA National Championship. Joe is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
The first red shirt college athlete was a Nebraska football player named Warren Alfson. In the late 1930s, Alfson practiced but didn’t play for the Cornhuskers for one season in a Nebraska red jersey without numbers. He was the first and probably the last college athlete to actually wear a red shirt.
Today, collegiate athletics has expanded its recruiting wardrobe to include a redshirt variation, gray shirts, green shirts, and blue shirts. The shirts are less about extra laundry and more about an athlete’s specific eligibility status. We can quickly define what all the color terms really mean including “blue shirt” and why they are becoming more fashionable with college coaches.
What does it mean to be a red shirt athlete?
Most student-athletes and their families have at least heard the term but may not fully understand how it all works. Typically, a red shirt athlete will have a scholarship but cannot compete for one year. They will participate in all team activities like practice, training, and receive benefits such as academic tutoring, but they will not see any playing time. However, red shirts will get an opportunity to play four seasons in five years. Reasons for being red shirted include a coach wanting a year to physically prepare an athlete for college competition (like Warren Alfson), or a chance for a student-athlete to recover from an injury. You can also be an “academic” red shirt. In that case, you are a freshman who may not have met all academic eligibility requirements.
Red shirt athletes face the challenge of not being able to play or dress for games and travel with their team. On the plus side, it is a great opportunity for your athlete to adjust to college life while on scholarship, and focus on developing physically, mentally, and academically for the rest of their college career.
What does it mean to be a gray shirt athlete?
This is one of the more challenging situations for a student-athlete. In some cases, gray shirt offers are made by programs that have more commits than open roster spots. Most coaches try to be clear about offers being made, but some student-athletes who committed early have been surprised to learn they have been gray shirted.
A gray shirt offer means that an athlete will be on scholarship at the start of the second semester. This delay scenario is most commonly seen in football. Your student-athlete would enroll first semester as a part-time student at the school or possibly a two-year school. The good news is that gray shirt athletes are delaying their eligibility and will also have five years to play four seasons. Plus, there’s a chance it could be turned into a regular scholarship offer if there is an unforeseen opening on the team’s roster.
Gray shirt athletes do miss out on being on building relationships and being part of the team that first semester. As part-time students, they cannot workout or practice with the team.
What does it mean to be a green shirt athlete?
More and more fall sport athletes are getting a jump on their college careers by graduating in December and enrolling a semester early. Usually, it is the more sought-after elite recruits who take this route. The benefits to green shirting include the chance to get ahead on classes and attend spring training and practice with your new team while on scholarship before the new fall season. Student-athletes who green shirt are allowed to play their first year but the can also red shirt and have five years to play four seasons.
One drawback is that your student-athlete would be missing out on graduating with their high school class. And, some student-athletes may just not be ready to make the move to college. There’s a lot of growing up that happens during that last semester in high school.
What does it mean to be a blue shirt athlete?
Blue shirting is becoming a more popular (but hardly common) way to creatively manage the number of athletic scholarships. Blue shirt rules allow for unrecruited players to be awarded a scholarship at the start of freshman practice. Like a red shirt, they will practice with the team but won’t be allowed to play for a year. This allows a team that may have too many commits to essentially borrow against their next year’s scholarship total. The rules are rather strict in regard to what is defined as being “unrecruited.” That means there was no official visit taken by the athlete, the coach didn’t visit the athlete at home, there was no National Letter of Intent signed, and no form of athletic aid.
Given those recruiting restrictions, it is still a pretty rare occurrence for a student-athlete to be considered for a blue shirt scholarship offer.
What all of the many different color shirts tells you is that it’s now more important than ever to know exactly how a coach plans to bring you on board and why, and what that means to your eligibility. Keep in mind, being a red, gray, green, or blue shirt may not be the start you imagined, however, many athletes have benefited from these different scholarship scenarios and go on to enjoy successful college careers.