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There’s More Than Just Red Shirts in College Sports

SE Blue Shirt Recruit

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.

A lot has changed since Warren Alfson became the first college athlete to wear an actual red shirt as a Nebraska football player in the late 1930s.

Today, collegiate athletics has expanded its recruiting eligibility 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'll quickly define what all the color terms really mean including “blue shirt” and why they are becoming more fashionable with college coaches.


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 and 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.

New red shirt rule for DI football this season
Up until this year, red shirt athletes faced the challenge of not being able to play or dress for games and travel with their team. Now, however, starting this season, Division I football players can play in up to four games without losing a season of competition.

Coaches and athletes both favor the new rule because it means younger players can get game experience sooner, and starting players will have less pressure on them to play through injuries.

Coaches appreciate the additional lineup flexibility and having the option to give playing time to more freshmen without the player losing out on a full season of competition.


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 building relationships and being part of the team that first semester. As part-time students, they cannot workout or practice with the team.


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-athletes 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 provided.

Given those recruiting restrictions, it is 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.

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