The State of College Recruiting: Straw Men and Their Benefactors

Written by whills and TXStampede

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True that, BZ.  As everyone reading here knows, recruiting violations are trending.  What's that you say?  Yes, college recruiting violations are trending.  Surprised?  Nope.  As long as there is real money to be made in amateur athletics, there will always be those that expose the loopholes in the rules.

List of current reports:

Basketball...

- Coaches who are caught contacting and hosting recruits with text machines and BBQ sauce. 

Football...

- Father shops son to highest bidder.

- Alleged pay-for-play disbursements through casino ATM's.

- Street Agents finance trips for players to pop-culture events and junkets to rub elbows and shore up the A-list roster.

- Recruiting services assist college programs with local representation and securing LOI's. 

- Select programs engage in over signing.

Meh, this is chump change compared to what we've seen in the past.  Whole programs and conferences have disappeared as a result of cheating the system.  But equity is what everyone is after.  When the slightest advantage is exposed, the competition is quick to put out the brush fire. 

The latest scandals unfolding involve paid representatives of amateur athletes and the validity of LOI's as contracts.

Parents and Surrogates

The lure of next level income brings out the worst in top athletes closest agents: Their immediate family members. Fathers, mothers, and uncles all looking to play the field in assisting their children in selecting the right college situation that gives their kid the best chance at professional athletic career puts a lot of pressure on the recruit. Single parents (ie. mothers) without a paternal influence for their kid often succumb to the surrogate "father". In years past that has typically been the player's coach.

However, as the access to information has become more readily available, programs use recruiting services to assist in mining the data for top prospect options. These services employ individuals or the principals themselves who through the development of relationships with families and players act on behalf of the kid, replacing in some instances the traditional role of the coach in assisting with the recruiting process.

Counter this with the fact that many programs rely on third party recruiting services to grade prospective athletes. These services are private enterprises and not regulated. Who knows what goes on behind-the-scenes to garner top scores for a player. I'm not suggesting impropriety, but the point is that without oversight or regulation there will always be temptation to find ways of working the system.

Given the lack of transparency, it's no wonder that surrogates (commonly described as "street agents") are coming under attack. Is that fair? If there are proven improprieties then the criticism is warranted.

One thing for certain, Mack Brown has drawn a line in the sand:

I'm sure that it's hurt us on some players. But I also feel like until everything gets legitimized, I don't want a player on our team who I don't know who the parents are. I don't know who he's listening to. If you get an agent involved in your program, then he's involved. That scares me. I worry some about the street agents.  I've seen it on three kids each of the last two years. So far, that's not a big enough impact on us to change our lives.

Oversigning and Gray Shirts

LOI's (Letters of Intent) are scholarship offers which are signed by the school representative and the player. Scholarships are offered on an annual basis. Players must agree to the schools requirements in order to receive an annual scholarship. The NCAA has created limits on the number of scholarships a school can offer on an annual basis. This number is lower than the number of LOI's a school can offer by three. Why? Well, "because of attrition" so say the schools.

Another example is the Gray Shirt offer. Schools will provide a verbal offer to an athlete on a contingency basis. An example of this is a player that may show potential with another season of development or a program will lock up an athlete at a position in which they have already offered a maximum number of scholarships. These verbal commitments are not binding, however. The players enroll at that school or at a 2-year institution to serve time in the hope the primary school will come through on their commitment. Some offers require the student athlete to participate in the football program as a blocking dummy (ie. walk on). The bottom line is there is no guarantee for the player.

However, there are many instances in which schools "over sign". This would be an LOI count above that which the NCAA stipulates. And, these schools do not publicly report the number of LOI's offered. The Wall Street Journal offered this article discussing the issue in which coaches refused to apologize for their actions. And it really isn't all surprising given the level of competition and the pressure to win and keep staff employed.

The NCAA has responded to the overreaching by institutions in regards to this matter. Susan Peal, who administers the National Letter of Intent program, had this to say:

The Collegiate Commissioners Association (the program's governing body) doesn't support grayshirting. The program has a policy that nullifies the National Letter of Intent if an institution or coach asks the student-athlete to grayshirt. However, if a student-athlete decides to delay enrollment, the national letter remains valid. Determining the instigator of the decision can be difficult.

Because the effect of the new rule may not be apparent immediately, the Football Issues Committee decided to remain diligent about monitoring it.

This rule has only been in effect for one year, and we want to take some time to see if that's the perfect number," said committee chair Nick Carparelli. "Certainly, the committee will continue to monitor it, and we can re-evaluate to see if there is a more appropriate number if necessary.

At some point you have to think that LOI's will be challenged in court as binding legal documents. At which point in time the legal profession will be allowed to inject themselves in the transaction process of scholarship allocation which will clearly be a boon to that industry.

Middle Men vs. Responsibility

What's to be done with those who have found an opening to insert themselves in the middle of the recruiting process in football and basketball?*

*For this discussion we'll exclude all other sports even though baseball, soccer, girls basketball, tennis, track, golf and many others have sanctioned AAU teams with non-school coaches for the most part. Some can even go to national events, like the AAU Junior Olympic track program. It is worth noting that Texas is one of two states who don't allow coaches to coach or direct girls and boys basketball AAU teams or boys 7-on-7 summer football teams. To me this creates a natural opening for middle men and should be corrected, although it must be noted that the vast majority of such AAU team coaches are not middle men - and high school coaches do keep a very close eye on such teams as much as possible.

Under whose jurisdiction do they fall: the individual states, the NCAA, the state's educational enforcement organization (UIL for Texas) or federal guidelines (Interstate Commerce Clause for some of the cases we're seeing)? No one really wants to involve the feds and I don't know if a reasonable person can expect the respective states to jointly get together to form a cohesive framework of laws on these middle men or even rules via a national organization. The problem here is consistency and enough teeth for enforcement.

The natural arbiter is the NCAA because it is their member schools that are the beneficiaries of the maneuvering of middle men. So, I'm just going to jump out there with some ideas of enforcement rules that might alleviate this situation.

1. Middle men: The NCAA should give college and university head coaches the power to notify NCAA and their university enforcement departments with a red flag warning about middle men and/or the recruits they are allegedly influencing. This would need some chain of evidence which the NCAA can check independently and in itself does not imply guilt per se, but the NCAA has the final responsibility to clear the red flags.

The corollary is that no recruit can sign an LOI with an active red flag.

Coaches can withdraw the red flag if no substantiation can be made by the university's enforcement division, but the NCAA still has the final word. If the middlemen's actions are deemed to be fraudulent within construct of the NCAA rules, refer them to the state's Attorney General for prosecution under relevant state law.

2. Recruits: Stiffer enforcement penalty, without the arbitrariness that has typified recent NCAA investigations (ahem USC, Auburn). Try this: Loss of two years of eligibility for recruits via NCAA, at all levels play in a given sport; loss of one year for not reporting contact. They can still play, but not immediately and not within the football or basketball programs.

This would require some amount of publicity to reach all kids. States would need to strengthen their standards, like a University Interscholastic League-type high school enforcement structure, and along with universities and colleges, would join with NCAA in publicizing the threat, the process and the penalties. In other words, the recruits bear a certain responsibility in this process and so do their parents if they are minors. Recruits over 21 bear all responsibility; ignorance will be no excuse.

3. Colleges and Universities: Formalize penalties via the schools for knowingly using middle men, which would include loss of scholarships, forfeiting games in which recruits played plus cost of investigation (ala civil penalties).

The last brings up money to get this done. I suggest that monies from bowl games, BCS (as long as it exists) and any playoff structure be set aside by the NCAA to clean this up quickly: add the structure, the staff and the enforcement officials in the field. Money and information seem to be the compelling factors in the insurgence of middle men. If this is nipped at the high school to university level, the NFL need not be involved. If, however, a transgression should not be discovered until the draft stages, there needs to be an agreement with the NFL and NBA not to allow those players to be drafted for a predetermined period. In a direct sense, the recruits themselves can be a party to a fraud. The colleges and universities at all levels serve as a feeder program to the NFL and NBA, they are a direct beneficiary, and should bear some responsibility for cleaning up the process at their end. (Hopefully, the respective owners and players' association can see eye-to-eye on this matter.)

One final irony: For as much money as Oregon spent on one service to get one guy, they could have hired a savvy net sports researcher and found everything they needed to know about Texas, California and Florida recruiting, most of it free. Even the pay sites are relatively cheap though. With such a research capability and a few feet on the ground, a team could target what they needed relatively easily. It's not the enormous growth of information which is at fault but the lack of capability of the institutions to know how to mine it properly for their own needs. The member schools of the NCAA could probably squash this on their own if they were motivated enough.

Follow the Money

Relatively speaking, very few athletic departments are 100% self-funded. Most have to rely on booster, alumni, endorsement, advertising, concessions, apparel financing. Oh yes, and that little thing called TV contracts. The latter of course is the big gorilla in the room. As long as TV executives expect a return on their broadcast investments, the NCAA will speak sideways about forceful regulation of recruiting processes. Think government debt and you get the picture. And given the recent trend of the citizenry pulling back on public funding of various non-essential enterprises, more efforts will be undertaken by athletic programs to find the system loopholes while the NCAA ostensibly looks the other way.

What to do?

Regulation of the process is a tough nut to crack considering the major professional enterprises have different rules for drafting (ie. hiring) amateur athletes. There is not a one size fits all solution. The games are different and handling of athletic advancement follows suit. All anyone really wants is an equitable playing field.

Will we ever see these changes? Possibly but not to the extent draconian rules may need to be applied. These latest developments are only the latest in a series of storylines that will continue to play out so long as the financial incentives are there.

Society has always dealt with the moral question of "win at any cost". But the costs are real, however. Lives are affected and the dollars at stake are tangible. This is not the last chapter. Only the latest.

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