IGREW an inch in college. That’s not much. But it’s still a change. It shows I wasn’t a finished product when I arrived on campus — not physically and certainly not emotionally.

I remember that inch every year at this time, when newspapers — including this one — print the national “rankings” of college football recruiting classes.

From top to bottom they are listed, celebrated, analyzed and re-analyzed. Who signed whom? Which school got the hottest studs? Who did the best shopping at the teenage supermarket?

These rankings — by services such as PrepStar, Street and Smith’s, G&W Recruiting Report, or the aptly named Tom Lemming — are chock-full of data, entered with great care and passion. They are every bit as detailed as any NFL draft analysis — down to height, weight and split times.

They are something else as well.

They are insane.

And this newspaper should not be running them.

Not everything in sports needs to be pushed through a sausage grinder, then ranked, rated and charted. At what point do we say enough? You have the NCAA, which wants to treat college players like amateurs; colleges that want them to behave like students; and meanwhile, scouting services that promote them like stocks on the Nasdaq.

“Billy ‘Superman’ Jones — 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, bench press 350, squat 230, with blinding speed, great acceleration — is leaning toward Florida, Michigan or Texas A&M, but reportedly has ruled out UCLA …”

Quick, California: sell!

This market not fit for teens

Now, the reasons I believe this newspaper — and any other responsible news organization — should not run rankings by college recruiting services are simple: Listing 17-year-olds like prize cows is dehumanizing.

It’s also irresponsible.

The news business is supposed to be about news. Reporting facts. A tout service’s rankings are not facts. On the contrary, it is a business, one we should not be encouraging, because it rakes in big money by shoving high-schoolers under a microscope. It bird-dogs them endlessly, and turns every friend, coach or teacher into a potential rumor source.

“Devon ‘Lightning’ Jones, the best receiver in the country — 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, 4.2 speed — is leaning toward Florida State . . .”

Where do you think these “experts” get their information? Do you think they go to every high school game in America? Do you think they talk to every kid?

Come on. These athletes play in different parts of the country, against different levels of competition. All these services can work off of is stats, body size, game film and buzz. That’s fine for hobbyists, and if people want to make a hobby of following high school players, I have no problem with that.

But we’re not in the business of reporting people’s hobbies.

By reporting these rankings — this year Florida State seems to have been declared the winner — we are telling fans to expect great things. When something happens — maturity, miscalculation — and the school doesn’t win, the coach is put on a stick. What’s the matter with you, you loser?

Don’t have the hype? Buy it!

This is how sick this whole recruiting thing has become. There are not only Web sites, chat rooms, newsletters, magazines and 900 numbers devoted exclusively to the recruiting wars of sophomores, juniors and seniors, there are now services that you, the parents, can hire to tout your kid to potential universities.

That’s right. For fees ranging from a few bucks up to $2,500, you can market your child to coaches around the country. Hey. It’s a hype business. And if you’re not getting the hype you need from the Tom Lemmings of the world, you might as well buy your own. After all, coaches are busy, too. They don’t have time to go everywhere. So they end up relying on this unlimited and unregulated tout industry.

How insane can it get? A few years ago, coaches were going gaga over a Mississippi prep star “who had all the tools.” He was listed in all the big recruiting guides. Tall. Fast. Strong. Good grades. One recruiter was so impressed, he traveled 500 miles to scout the kid.

Only problem? The kid didn’t exist.

Someone made him up.

His “school” didn’t even have a football team.

Here’s a better idea. Instead of ranking schools’ recruiting success before any of the new crop has played a down, why not wait four years, until that class is about to graduate. Then look at the success those players had, and, in retrospect, see which school recruited the smartest.

By that point, rankings don’t affect anyone’s future. They don’t rob anyone of his youth. And, more important, at least the kids can grow into what they’re supposed to be, the way I sprouted after I got to college.

After all, better to give an inch than be off by a mile.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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