Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Athletic recruiting: Have we reached the lowest common denominator?

Recruiting is the lifeblood of any college athletic program. Coaching careers are made or broken, in large part, on the ability to attract better talent than the competition. Its importance cannot be overstated. But it is a cut-throat, relentless and competitive business with three unfortunate trends emerging: 1) earlier commitments between prospects and schools; 2) increased influence by AAU type organizations that operate primarily for financial gain; and 3) NCAA violation cost/benefit analyses - weighing the sanction for a NCAA violation against the possible advantage gained.

Recently some coaches spoke about these trends in a number of different contexts, and their observations are notable.

Earlier "commitments" between prospects and coaches - Many coaches are playing on the fears and inexperience of high school prospects in an effort to secure an early commitment, regardless of what's best for the prospect. The rush to identify and secure the best talent has many coaches manufacturing artificial deadlines - forcing a prospect to "commit" to the institution at the risk of losing the opportunity on the table.

Many commitments are made before it is permissible under NCAA rules for the coach to call the prospect on the phone or pay for the prospect to visit campus. For a limited number of prospects, they've done their research about institutions and programs and are mature enough to make a decision. But most prospects are not nearly so prepared. Their knowledge about the meaning of a college education and the information necessary to make informed decisions is correlated with age. The younger they are, the less they know.


"Recruiting has gotten to the point where its out of hand....I mean were getting a commitment from a 13 year old? Come on. What are we doing? If the NCAA really wants to practice what it preaches with all this academic stuff, why do they let people offer scholarships to kids before you have all the information to know where they are academically after their junior year? ..... Its just disheartening to see what we are doing to 15- 16- and 17-year old people.....What we are teaching our kids is that our word doesn't mean anything. A kid commits, and decommits and and people go back at them and you say 'Well that's the way it is'. What kind of values are we teaching young people?"


Edsall goes on to say that if the NCAA was serious about its commitment to academics, it would legislate how early a prospect can be offered a scholarship.

The AAU Money Trail - Meanwhile, economic concerns and ethics are converging around men's basketball, AAU teams and summer recruiting events. At issue are the fees that AAU coaches and summer camp organizers charge college coaches for rosters with player names and numbers so that they know who they are watching. A New York Times article details that coaches are being charged hundreds of dollars for the rosters (some organizers provide the option to waive the roster fee if they sign up for a more expensive year-long "recruiting service"). Cash is often the only method of payment. Yale coach James Jones calls the practice "extortion". Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was more expansive, stating:

“There’s a mentality where coaches want to cover themselves and not get out there and say what’s right and call out the people that are wrong. That’s precisely why things are the way they are. That’s why we have culture issues in our game. It’s a darn shame. The people who could have influence and do have a voice, they choose not to use it because it doesn’t help them. They don’t want anything unsettling their smooth little boat ride.”

Stallings also stated in the article that college coaches directly supporting a summer basketball program in which prospects are playing is, “by definition,” a violation of N.C.A.A. rules. “If I’m knowingly giving you money, I’m not allowed to do that,” Stallings said. “It’s really an indirect funneling of money to summer programs, which again is not what the institutions should be doing.”

Similarly, the NCAA issued a ruling that stated coaches could be committing a violation if they paid to attend a banquet sponsored by "Grassroots Basketball of America", an organization that sponsors more than 30 AAU summer teams. Tickets for the dinner were nearly $200 each and an NCAA memo hours prior to the event resulted in numerous last minute cancellations at the fundraising dinner in which Sonny Vaccaro was the honored guest. The solution by Grassroots to the last minute cancellations was to increase their fees for the roster cards.

NCAA Violation cost/benefit analysis - Sometimes decisions are best explained with a response that in effect says, "the ends justify the means". Perhaps the best example that I can find is contained in statements in the New York Times by Tennessee football coach Lane Kifflin when speaking about his recent series of well documented recruiting statements and corresponding violations:

“We’re creating interest, and it’s shown,” Kiffin said. “I’ve not loved everything I’ve had to do, but it needed to be done, in my opinion, to be able to put us where we are today.”

Kiffin's comment's reflect in essence a cost/benefit analysis - The benefits of his approach (including a commitment from the best running back in the country) were worth the cost of a few secondary violations and incendiary comments directed at rival schools.

Going back to The Sporting News interview with Connecticut's Randy Edsall - he later made the following comments (which were not directed at Kiffin per se and were made prior to Kiffin's explanation): "The NCAA isn't as stringent as it used to be. Take a look at some of the schools committing secondary violations. Some schools are saying, we're going to commit these secondary violations because they don't hurt us, and they get us publicity, and get us out there with the kids."

In an age of spin doctoring and sterile sound bites, genuine statements such as those by Stallings, Jones and Kiffin are unusual, but welcome, if for no other reason than they hopefully prompt meaningful dialogue about important ethical issues. Finding a common denominator about the appropriate standards associated with recruiting will be difficult. But hopefully, despite evidence to the contrary in the three areas cited above, the standard won't be the lowest common denominator.

3 comments:

Brian P. Foley said...

New Hampshire Hockey just got recruiting violations for sending out illegal emails to recruits who were still freshmen or sophomores in high school.

A. G. Dube said...

First, thanks for discussing this topic. There has always been questionable behavior in recruiting, but things do look pretty bad right now. I suppose the explosion of media (Internet/TV) coverage regarding recruiting has raised the stakes for coaches. Fans, particularly the rabid Internet forum fan, know exactly what kind of players they want.

The NCAA does not seem willing to punish recruiting violations like they did in the past. Not only are coaches willing to exploit this to land recruits, but I think they can appease their fans (the Internet message board types) by getting secondary violations to show the fans that they are willing to go the extra mile for the program. I wrote about this on my website a couple weeks ago. Also, coaches are fired pretty quickly if their performance is even slightly below expectations. Offering scholarships to underclassmen/middle school kids gives the coaches (at least in theory) some breathing room. Even if their current players aren't very good, the coach can say "look at what I have three years from now! It's all up from here!" I don't think that works in the real world, but I suppose it is worth a try.

What can be done about it? I don't know, most programs got away with all kinds of things even when the NCAA was tougher on punishment. Rules can be implemented, but the same scoundrels that push the limits now will break the rules if there are rules. Of course, they will get away with it more often than not. Is that really the best solution?

Although the focus has been on the revenue sports, I think there is a lot of concern regarding international recruiting in non-revenue sports. There are a lot of things that can go wrong with international recruiting, but how do you regulate it?

Michael Cross said...

I think the challenge that has always existed is that you can't legislate morals or ethics. Rules are the attempt to do so and are met with varying success. The driver that is different today is the financial incentives are so much greater across so many more sports and the financial investments by parents and prospects are also greater with specialization that distorts any semblance of balance. The result is a system that ratchets up until there is a significant reason for change (e.g. the current economic situation).