IN THIS HOAX, MAYBE THE JOKE IS ON US

On the tape, it looks like any other high school gymnasium. The stands are packed, a crowd of students, parents, cheerleaders. The beefy young football player addresses the assembly, a shirt and tie chosen for the momentous occasion. Into a microphone, he thanks his family and his school. He makes his big announcement.

“It was Oregon and Cal,” says Kevin Hart, looking at the two caps on a table in front of him, “and I decided I’ll be playing football at the University of California.”

The crowd erupts in cheers and applause. Hart pulls the Cal cap on perfectly, a two-handed tug on the back, a quick yank on the front. He rises and waves at the adoring fans, as if he’s done this a million times in his head.

And apparently he has.

Because the whole thing was a hoax.

In one of the most bizarre events ever in football recruiting, Hart, a high school offensive lineman from the small town of Fernley, Nev., made up his recruitment, made up his acceptance and participated in a bogus news conference in front of the whole school.

“I wanted to play D-I ball more than anything,” he later admitted in a statement. “When I realized that wasn’t going to happen, I made up what I wanted to be reality.”

And the really crazy thing?

No one stopped him. So far under the radar

I don’t know where this kid’s coaches were, where his parents were or where any responsible adult in his life was. But to allow a high school senior to fake it all the way to a news conference is an amazing act of gullibility.

All the schools Hart claimed to have recruited him – including Cal, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Oklahoma State – never did. Most never heard of him.

You would think someone around him might have noticed that, or wanted to meet an actual coach, or heard an actual recruiting call.

You would think someone might have asked, “Kevin, how come you haven’t gone on any recruiting trips?” Instead, the kid made it all the way to the microphone. Maybe the family wanted to believe. Maybe the school staff and the locals went along with it, because in Fernley, a farming community 30 miles outside Reno, the glory of being recruited was too seductive to question.

And therein lies the problem. We have turned college recruitment into an entertainment seduction. Why on Earth do we allow high school athletes to call news conferences to announce their college choices? Is that what the gym is for? Do we do the same for chemistry majors?

The high schools should say no. The media should say no. Instead, ESPN and CSTV televise National Signing Day, complete with highlights, analysts and rankings. Watching this last week was enough to make you ill. High school seniors being interviewed, adored, shuffling around in pre-produced video pieces in which they offer quick brags, like the kid who smiled and said, “I’m a clown” (as if he were video dating), but quickly added that when he tackled, “I’m gonna bring it.”

Right. As if their egos aren’t big enough. The seedy side of college sports

No wonder Hart wanted a piece of this. He seemed to know the whole routine. How to build suspense, how to tug the cap, how to hug the coach. I promise you he didn’t invent that stuff in his head: He watched it happen to others on TV and some twisted part of him said, “I have to have that.”

If we didn’t celebrate it, he wouldn’t mimic it. Oh, Hart still might have a problem with the truth. But these are kids, remember, still eating lunch in cafeterias. What we’re creating with all this scouting, rating and fawning over them is a new set of megalomaniacs who think the world will lay flat for them as long as they star in sports. Forget studying. Forget humility. With recruitment mania, we’ve created an express train of immediate gratification. Hart realized the train was leaving without him. He tried to fake a ticket.

“I made up what I wanted to be reality.” What a sentence for today’s world. When this fraud was revealed, the consensus was “it’s a shame.” And that’s true.

But it’s not just Kevin Hart who should be ashamed of himself.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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