Competing Interests

January 31, 2006

When superstar high school athletes are asked to describe the experience of being recruited by colleges, the word that comes to many tongues is: “intense.”

That was the case for several of the past and prospective college athletes at Summit on the Collegiate Athletic Experience that the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics held  in Washington Monday.

Myron Rolle, who was previously the highest rated top prep defensive football prospect in the country last year, said that people from Web sites -- like www.rivals.com and www.scout.com -- would call him every day, multiple times a day, to find out which institutions he was considering. And Rolle isn’t even sure how they got his cell phone number.

Rolle said an assistant coach from the University of Michigan would often be at his school eating breakfast by the time he got there. “It’s a lot of pressure,” said Rolle, who had a 4.0 GPA, and, after graduating early, began at Florida State University this month.

Ruth Riley, a former University of Notre Dame basketball standout, and last year an all-star in the Women’s National Basketball Association, called the recruiting process “stressful. It’s kind of like a dating game,” said the 6-foot-5 Detroit Shock center. “You both put your best foot forward.”

One of the problems the athletes cited with recruiting, like any dating game, was the uncertainty that lies after the first impression. The athletes on the panel all said they had very positive athletic experiences in college, but said that, if they could make a change, they would make all scholarships guaranteed for four years.

“You’re supposed to commit for four years, but a coach can leave any time,” said Tye Gunn, a graduate student at Texas Christian University who quarterbacked the football team this season. Gunn noted that coaches can lure an athlete in, and then leave an institution before an athlete ever sets foot there. Meanwhile, an athlete is penalized a year for changing institutions.

Sometimes the pickup lines are flat out deception. Scottie Reynolds, one of the nation’s top high school basketball players who has committed to attend and play at the University of Oklahoma, said he would get text messages from college coaches saying that he was their man, and that he would be a starter right away. “Then your teammate gets a text from the same university, saying the same thing, and you play the same position,” Reynolds said.

Sometimes the problem is simply that too many people with too many interests are involved in the dating game. Among the most contentious courtiers are Amateur Athletic Union -- AAU -- coaches. The AAU is a nonprofit, amateur sports organization that organizes teams and competitions in a host of sports. In recent years, AAU coaches have duked it out for the best prep talent. Landing a major prospect can give the coach national exposure and make him or her some powerful friends who are seeking to influence the athlete’s choice of college.

Unlike college coaches who have NCAA and institutional rules to abide by, for AAU coaches, recruiting is more or less a free for all, according to the panelists. “When you get exposure, a lot of people come shooting at you and you don’t know who’s real and who’s fake,” Reynolds said. Joe Wooten, coach of the high profile basketball team at Bishop O’Connell High School, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, said that some AAU coaches will just come out and offer athletes thousands of dollars to play on their team. He also recalled an instance in which an AAU coach bought players prostitutes and drugs in Las Vegas, where AAU hosts its “Main Event” tournaments. “AAU is unaccountable,” Wooten said.

Still, some colleges, especially those with smaller travel budgets for recruiting, like AAU summer leagues, because they gather many prospects in one place. One argument has been that removing them would tilt recruiting advantages even more toward institutions willing to spend uninhibitedly. But Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, wasn’t shedding any tears for competitive equity. “That’s not the business we’re in,” he said, referring to institutions of higher education.

Dan Wetzel, a columnist for Yahoo.com, said that it’s the unaccountable people in the recruiting world who can damage athletes the most. Wetzel said he “has seen” executives from shoe companies introduce prospective college basketball players to sports agents -- knowing an agent costs a player his NCAA eligibility, but is no skin off the back of the agent or company executive.

Wetzel also chafed at the suggestion that the NCAA is working hard to make improvements. He said that some of the institutions represented on the NCAA's Division I Management Council are under probation themselves. He added that there are few real penalties for anyone but athletes when a violation of NCAA rules occurs. He noted that Vince Dooley, who was coach of the University of Georgia football team when it was penalized for recruiting violations, later was promoted to athletics director. “The people breaking the rules are writing the rules,” Wetzel said. “The schools don’t care.”

Michael F. Adams, president of the University of Georgia, resented that characterization. “I’ve got scars to show for some of the people I’ve changed,” he said. Adams took heat for nudging Dooley – who was popular enough at times during his career to consider a run for the U.S. Senate -- out of his job.

When asked what he thought could help, one suggestion Wetzel had is to, “make all freshmen ineligible,” as they were before 1972. He said that would at least that would get rid of things like the fake high schools that are set up to boost players’ GPAs. He also questioned why the NCAA went to court to cut sports agents off from college athletes, while allowing shoe companies and boosters, who give money to institutions, to stay in the loop.

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