ATHENS, Ga. -- Audra Towson has never scored a touchdown or made a tackle for the University of Georgia, but what she does on Friday nights in January has a lot to do with how the Bulldogs fare on Saturday afternoons in the fall.
Ms. Towson, 22, is president of the Georgia Girls, a group of about 70 female students who spend their winter weekends taking high school football stars to dinner and showing them around town.
"We're like hostesses," said Dominique Holloman, a sophomore. "You could think of it as a tour guide."
On Wednesday, college football's signing day, the Georgia Girls scanned the list of Bulldog signees looking for recruits they escorted. And over the next four or five years, they will watch the players' progress with pride.
"It makes you feel great," says senior Caron Yancey. "You're just overwhelmed, especially on signing day."
Other schools, mostly in the South, have similar organizations -- the Bama Belles (Alabama), Vol Hostesses (Tennessee), Gator Guides (Florida) and Tiger PAWS (Clemson).
Some people say such groups amount to a university-sponsored escort service. Tennessee fans taunted Georgia Girls at a game last season, insinuating that they used sex to sign players. And some Georgia professors also have been critical.
"Just the fact that these hospitality teams are all female and the football players are all male sets up the expectation that what is being given out is sex appeal," said Victoria Davion, who teaches a feminist philosophy class. "They're selling sex appeal as an enticement to come."
Recruits often chat about which school has the prettier escorts, Bulldog linebacker Adrian Hollingshed says, but the players don't expect relationships with the women. And the Georgia Girls know a pretty smile isn't going to persuade a player to commit.
"I think the people that we recruit are intelligent. They're coming for the coaches, the facilities and the football team," says sophomore Sanshia Patrick. "We're just there to make sure they don't have a terrible visit."
The Georgia Girls say they mildly flirt with some recruits, but it never goes beyond that. Many of them are in their 20s and wouldn't consider dating teen-agers, football stars or not.
Other schools stay away from escort groups altogether, or make them coed.
"We don't have that, and we won't," said Bob Chamiel, coordinator of football operations at Notre Dame. "I think everybody has their own way of recruiting."
At Michigan, a group of male and female volunteers do office work for the program and pass out name tags to recruits on game days.
The bulk of the Georgia Girls' work goes on in January, when recruits make official campus visits.
On Fridays, they put on their best red-and-black outfits for dinner with the players. Each woman takes basic football lessons and studies up on her recruit -- where he's from, his parents' names and his position -- to keep the conversation flowing smoothly.
The Georgia Girls accompany the recruits, players and coaches to dinner again on Saturday nights, sometimes followed by a tour of Athens' night life. Because the players are underage, bars are rarely on the itinerary, with the usual destinations being basketball games or bowling alleys.
During the unofficial visits in the fall, the women sit with the recruits at games, show them around campus and answer questions about student life.
"We play a part in making them feel more comfortable at the school," says Haley Cagle, a vice president. "Sometimes they'll confide stuff in us that they don't tell the coaches."
Some current players say the Georgia Girls made their tense recruiting visits easier.
"The girls we got here are real informative," says freshman linebacker William Witherspoon. "They come up to you and ask if you have any questions so you don't just sit there wondering when you should ask."
Competition to become a Georgia Girl is stiff. Last year, more than 200 girls applied for about 80 spots.
"We look for girls that are vivacious, outgoing and informative," Ms. Towson says.
There aren't a lot of rules regarding behavior, with the Georgia Girls being trusted to use their best judgment. One thing that is strictly forbidden is wearing anything other than the school colors.
"We even get picky if it is not the color red we want," Ms. Towson says.
Many of the Georgia Girls say they joined the group to become part of the football program -- perhaps the most dominant aspect of campus life in the fall.
"I feel like more than just a person in the stands," Ms. Holloman said. "I'm actually part of something, not just an onlooker. It's kind of like being the ultimate fan."
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