On Friday the FBI gave us a sneak peek into some of the information it has gathered in its investigation of corruption in college basketball. As it seems is the case with all official investigations these days, the public will get to see evidence and form an opinion before any jury is impaneled. That’s a sad trend in jurisprudence.
So, today, many famous coaches and many “blue blood” programs find they must defend themselves before any indictments are issued. That’s a sad trend in jurisprudence.
However, cries of shock over the allegations are disingenuous. Any parent of a highly recruited basketball player, any high school coach of any highly recruited player, and most any AAU coach could have told the FBI thirty years ago that players and their families are inundated with illicit propositions from shady characters.
Recruiting corruption has at least three layers: AAU basketball; recruiting by colleges; and, recruiting by professional agents.
I coached an AAU team in Atlanta in the late 1980’s. I chose to coach the 19-and-under classification (players aged 18 and 19) precisely to avoid the commotion surrounding the 17-and-under players (aged 16 and 17). My players had graduated high school and signed their Letters of Intent, so the agents and runners and hangers-on were no longer interested. Those deals were done. As a result, my players had fun on an All-Star team playing All-Star teams and honing their craft before matriculating at Stanford, Clemson, Vanderbilt, South Alabama, Maryland, Texas, Furman, Stetson and Kansas.
On the other hand, the 17-and-under players, the ones who had yet to sign with a school, were like stray calves who had wandered into the Amazon River to be attacked by schools of Piranha. The reason AAU basketball is a hotbed of recruiting interest is twofold: 1) the teams and competition levels are far better than at most high schools, so player evaluation is more realistic and more accurate; and, 2) the governance of AAU coaches and teams is lax compared to the high school level. I was never briefed on what might constitute “impermissible benefits” so I have no idea to this day whether the transportation and meals I provided for the players were permissible.
So, one step in fixing the college recruiting problem is to fix AAU basketball—educate and certify AAU coaches and make them sign a Memo of Understanding about their role in the recruiting process.
But, fixing AAU basketball would be one small Band-Aid on a huge laceration. The other two layers of recruiting corruption—recruiting by universities to play for a year or so, and recruiting by professional agents—are more problematic.
The infamous one-and-done rule requiring NBA teams to wait until a player’s 19th birthday to draft him, creates an environment in which the very best high school players are tempted to engage an agent before they go to University or before they complete their obligatory one year of University servitude. What’s the harm in engaging representation to secure your future? What’s the harm in receiving a loan against future earnings while you’re struggling through a year of dorm life? The only harm is that it breaks the rules and sometimes the law. Enter the FBI.
The one-and-done rule is Un-American on many levels. In no other profession are qualified job applicants restricted from employment for a year. This is a breach of civil rights and I’m surprised the ACLU hasn’t tackled the problem. Players who are qualified to play in the NBA immediately after their senior year of high school should have every right to do so, just as all other Americans can choose to go work instead of going to college. Those players who aren’t ready for the NBA could choose to play abroad or attend a University. In college baseball a player can sign a professional contract after high school, but if he signs a grant-in-aid, he won’t be draft-eligible again until after what would have been his junior year of college. College basketball could easily adopt the same rule—but only if the NBA cooperates. The adoption of this rule would make it legal for high school graduates to engage an agent—and give up amateur status by doing so—and would reduce the corruption in the system.
The by-products of eliminating the one-and-done rule are beneficial to the college game: programs would have more continuity as players stayed in school for three years, meaning certain coaches wouldn’t be recruiting entire teams each year; and, coaches would be less tempted to compete illegally for top talent ready for the NBA. Ergo, less cheating.
That leaves routine college recruiting as the final aspect of the problem. Again, the fix is easy: stop punishing schools and players and start punishing coaches for infractions. Pretending that games and championships weren’t won in the past, reducing scholarships to punish players in the future, are ineffective approaches to the problem. Fine the coaches who committed the infractions. Ban the coaches from employment by NCAA member schools. Criminally prosecute offending coaches. If the coaches had their careers at stake, behavior would change. Today only reputations are at stake and reputations are far less important than the millions the coaches are paid. This change would require college coaches to contract with the NCAA as well as with their school but that doesn’t seem a difficult step.
College recruiting problems can be fixed if the AAU, the NCAA, and the NBA want them fixed. We’ll soon see whether those organizations actually want the problems fixed.
Here’s hoping your favorite schools and coaches are not implicated in the FBI probe.