To NCAA Men’s Basketball fans familiar with the sport’s recruiting process, these grassroots basketball events are as easily recognizable in name as the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four.
However, unlike the 74th annual Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, set to tip-off in New Orleans in 2012, NCAA coaches may not be sitting in the arenas when the Peach Jam, Super 64 and Super Showcase are held next year.
Under the current Division I NCAA Bylaws, the two ten-day periods between July 6 through July 15 and July 22 through July 31 are designated as “Evaluation Periods.” The NCAA essentially defines an “Evaluation Period” as a time when coaches can attend off-campus activities to “. . . assess the. . . playing ability of prospective student-athletes,” but cannot engage in “. . . in-person. . . recruiting contact. . . ” Throughout the periods, NCAA coaches criss-cross the nation scouting talent at various grassroots basketball tournaments. Many of these tournaments are sponsored by corporate entities, including major shoe brands. Arguably, the largest machine churning out grassroots basketball players in the United States is the Amateur Athletic Union (“AAU”), whose players hit the court at tournaments throughout the year and during the July Evaluation Period.
In September 2010, Division I members of the Conference Commissioners Association voted unanimously to “. . . recommend eliminating the July Men’s Basketball recruiting period beginning in 2012. . .” The recommendation was “. . . motivated. . . by wanting to reduce the influence of third parties on the recruiting process. . .” In response to the recommendation, the Division I Board of Directors instituted a review of the July Evaluation Period for Men’s Basketball.
Reaction to the Proposed Elimination of the July Evaluation Period
Thus far, the Division I Board of Directors’ review has resulted in two proposed recruiting calendar alternatives. The first, proposed by the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-10, creates an April Evaluation Period, but reduces the July Evaluation Period to nine days. These conferences “. . . acknowledge that past attempts to regulate the. . . influence of the non-scholastic basketball environment in the recruiting process have been largely ineffective.” A second alternative proposed by the SEC creates an April Evaluation Period and limits the July Evaluation Period to nine days for the next three years. After that, the July Evaluation Period would be replaced by “evaluation camps” similar to ” . . . the NBA Pre-Draft Camp or USA Basketball U16 national team development camp.”
The National Association of Basketball Coaches (“NABC”) opposes the elimination of the July Evaluation Period. In a letter sent to Division I coaches, the NABC argued that eliminating the July Evaluation Period would: (1) require coaches to “blindly” offer scholarships to students they have not evaluated since February of the prospective student-athlete’s junior year; make retaining student-athletes more difficult; and remove the most cost and time-efficient model for recruiting prospective student-athletes. The NABC asserted, “The elimination of the July evaluation period is not going to eliminate third parties.”
Why is There Sudden Concern over the Influence of Third-Parties on the Recruiting Process?
It is unclear which particular event or events prompted the NCAA to recommend eliminating the July Evaluation Period in an effort to curb the improper influence of third-parties over prospective student-athletes.
Arguably, though, the blinders shielding the general public from the powerful (and sometimes, improper) influence of third-parties over the recruitment of prospective student-athletes were removed in 2010, when George Dohrmann’s 422-page exposé of the influence of grassroots basketball on prospective student-athletes was published.
Play Their Hearts Out chronicled the eight years Sports Illustrated’s Dohrmann spent following Demetrius Walker through the grassroots basketball system in Southern California. National interest in Walker’s playing ability piqued when a portion of the January 24, 2005 Sports Illustrated cover touted a picture of a then 14 year-old Walker with the caption, “He’s 14 years old. You’re going to hear from him.” Play Their Hearts Out largely details the exploitation of Walker by an AAU coach who on paper, appears largely motivated by material desires, albeit at the expense of the personal and playing development of Walker and his teammates.
Referencing the Sports Illustrated article introducing Walker’s athletic prowess to the world, Dohrmann stated in Play Their Hearts Out, “Only the broadest strokes of [the article’s] analysis would spread: [Walker] was special; he was the next LeBron; and [his AAU coach] was an emerging basketball titan.” Arguably, the “broadest stroke” of Play Their Hearts Out was the outing of the improper influence numerous third-parties involved in the grassroots basketball world have over the recruitment of potential student-athletes.
Elimination of the July Evaluation Period: A Catch-22
Regardless of what prompted the sudden interest in eliminating the July Evaluation Period, elimination of the July Evaluation Period results in a catch-22.
The current July Evaluation Period allows for the influence of third-parties to be largely felt: third-parties fund the period’s tournaments, coach the prospective student-athletes that play in them, and run the recruiting services which assist NCAA coaches in determining which talent to scout during the period.
However, a catch-22 arises in the fact that elimination of the July Evaluation Period creates more opportunities for third-parties to improperly influence the recruitment of prospective student-athletes by NCAA Men’s Basketball programs.
Jeff Borzello is a college basketball writer for CBSSports. A nationally recognized NCAA Men’s Basketball recruiting expert, Borzello estimates he has attended 45 AAU tournaments over the past four years. Borzello explained the potential for improper influence to arise at AAU tournaments by noting, “Some are run extremely well, others leave slightly more room for nefarious characters to get involved.”
Despite recognizing the potential involvement of “nefarious characters” at AAU events, Borzello is quick to point out that elimination of the July Evaluation Period will only increase the improper influence of third-parties on the recruitment of prospective student-athletes. Borzello explained, “reducing the number of [evaluation] periods increases third-party influences, because coaches [would then] have to rely more heavily on third-party entities to find out about players.” Arguably, this reliance is already heavy, since under the current NCAA Division I Bylaws, there is not an Evaluation Period between March 31 and July. Given the length of time between when a coach is allowed to evaluate a player, the removal of an additional Evaluation Period only increases a coach’s reliance upon third-parties to determine which prospective student-athletes to scout and recruit.
Additionally, elimination of the July Evaluation Period dispenses of an extraordinary stage for prospective student-athletes to showcase their talent. Kevin Wagstaff is a former NCAA Men’s Basketball player who played in July Evaluation Period tournaments with his former AAU team, the Colorado Super Flow. Wagstaff reflected, “Overall, it’s a great opportunity. Kids, some of whom come from underprivileged families, get to play before coaches who can give them a scholarship and pay for their education.”
Wagstaff’s sentiments were shared by Carmen Hawkins. In Play Their Hearts Out, Hawkins is depicted as the strong-willed single-mother of player Justin Hawkins, who not only wants to ensure the development of Justin’s basketball ability, but also his educational opportunities and cultural influences. Hawkins remarked, “elimination hurts kids who do not attend high schools with high-profile basketball programs.” This is due to the fact that because of budget and time constraints, coaches are left oftentimes with the ability to only attend high school games featuring prominent players or programs. The numerous games occurring during the July Evaluation Period grant coaches an opportunity to familiarize themselves with players who Hawkins refers to as being “off the grid.”
Finally, elimination of the July Evaluation Period disbands what John Infante–author of the Bylaw Blog and Assistant Director of Compliance and Colorado State University–calls, “. . .the most well-policed recruiting period in all of college athletics.” NCAA compliance enforcement officials are on-hand at games throughout the July Evaluation Period. However, the self-policing by NCAA coaches is arguably the strongest defense mechanism against third-parties exerting improper influence (at least publicly) during the period. Per Borzello’s account, there are more than 1,000 college coaches attending events during the July Evaluation Period. That means coaches are being watched by up to 2,000 eyes of their peers. This self-policing arguably presents a significant hurdle to third-parties exerting improper influence during the course of the tournaments.
Is There a Solution?
Good attorneys seek cost-effective and practical solutions to their client’s needs. As discussed above, it appears that elimination of the July Evaluation Period is neither a cost-effective nor a practical solution to address the need of ridding improper third-party influence from the recruitment of prospective student-athletes.
However, two cost-effective and practical solutions exist which address the NCAA’s needs: education and enforcement.
Like me, Carmen Hawkins is an attorney. And like me, Hawkins finds the NCAA’s bylaws related to the recruitment of prospective student-athletes complex. The 2010-2011 Division NCAA Division I Manual is 444 pages in length. Article 13, “Recruiting,” takes up 63 of those pages. Thus, one can only imagine the level of perplexity a high school student is faced with when trying to interpret the NCAA’s recruitment bylaws. It is not a coincidence that some NCAA member institutions prefer that their compliance staff members hold a law degree.
Thus, rather than eliminating an opportunity for potential student-athletes to showcase their talent and coaches to adequately scout that talent, the NCAA should embark upon making its recruitment bylaws more understandable to its readers and prospective followers.
The NCAA must not only engage in better educating potential student-athletes of its recruitment bylaws, but must also exert greater effort in properly educating the parents of prospective student-athletes of its recruitment bylaws. The need for this education is championed by Hawkins, who noted that although the NCAA shows videos discussing its bylaws to players and coaches during July Evaluation Period tournaments, similar videos are not shown to parents of prospective student-athletes.
Arguably, a prospective student-athlete’s parent serves as a gatekeeper to the exertion of improper influence over a student-athlete’s recruitment. At age eighteen (or younger, given that for Men’s Basketball, the NCAA recognizes seventh graders as prospective student-athletes), most young men are not accustomed to the possibility that people they come into contact with are engaging with them for the sole purpose of exploiting their talent. By taking pro-active measures to educate parents on its bylaws, the tactics used by third-parties to improperly influence prospective student-athletes, and how that influence could adversely effect their son’s eligibility, the NCAA can thwart the improper influence of third-parties.
A good attorney knows that a law (or here, NCAA bylaw) is only effective if it can be adequately enforced. Thus, rather than creating new bylaws, the NCAA should seek to accomplish its goal of removing the improper influence of third-parties over prospective student-athletes by actively enforcing its current bylaws.
Arguably, if properly enforced, Bylaw 13.2.1 would drastically limit the improper influence of third-parties over the recruitment of prospective student-athletes. Bylaw 13.2.1 prohibits ” an institution’s staff member[s and] representative[s] of its athletic interests from giving benefits to a prospective student-athlete, his family or friends.” Arguably, a third-party with the ability to influence a teenager’s choice as to where to play college basketball would be deemed a “friend” of the prospective student-athlete. Thus, third-parties receiving improper benefits from coaches, universities and “representatives of [their] athletic interests” to sway a prospective student-athlete’s college decision, violate Bylaw 13.2.1. Thorough, public investigations of allegations of improper benefits received by third-parties in the recruitment of student-athlete’s, along with the institution of reasonable sanctions, limits the improper influence of third-parties on the recruitment of prospective student-athletes.
With education and enforcement, young men can continue to “play their hearts out” throughout the summer months, and coaches can find their way into arenas during July 2012.