AAU Basketball: A Primer (Part 3): Sympathy for the Devil, and Finding Some Answers
by Hoop Alliance, special to TechSideline.com, 7/29/04

“Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste. I’ve been around for a lot of years, stole many a man’s soul and grace. Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name. But, what’s puzzling you is just the nature of my game.

“Just call me Lucifer, ‘cause I’m in need of some restraint. So if you meet me have some courtesy, have some sympathy and some taste, or I‘ll lay your soul to waste.”

For the astute observers, you might recognize those words sung by Mick Jagger in “Sympathy For The Devil”, but they also might be appropriate for the current climate where summer grassroots basketball is concerned. At least as far as some college coaches and college programs are concerned.

The nature of the game is puzzling to coaches these days, and there are souls that are being compromised in summer basketball, where AAU coaches and shoe companies are the brokers of power and in some cases, brokers of the very kids that are under their influence.

Bowing at the altar of shoe companies and AAU programs and coaches. Is that really what we want to see college coaches subjected to? While watching these same people extract, and now sometimes even extort, money from the same college athletic funds that taxpayer dollars go to?

With AAU and shoe companies finding the methods to place themselves front and center during the spring and summer with high school -- and younger -- prospects, the NCAA is finally coming to grips with the landscape that is now spring and summer recruiting, and how much of that control has been inadvertently handed over to AAU coaches and programs, along with the shoe companies who regularly fund the larger and more prestigious AAU traveling teams.

When the NCAA stepped in a number of years back and made some drastic changes to recruiting, which included limiting the amount of contact that colleges could have with prospective college recruits and their parents, they probably could not have forecast the Pandora’s box that they were opening for shoe companies and AAU programs to step in and fill the vacuum that was left with the limitations that were placed upon schools. Those limitations for coaches are the restrictions placed upon them by NCAA regulations, which severely limit the amount of contact with parents and potential prospects. So, the colleges are left with the AAU programs and their coaches to solicit information on the prospects. This also puts these AAU programs and coaches in a position where they become the conduit of information, controlling the flow of information.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that when you greatly control information, you also can influence decisions. By placing recruiting restrictions and contact restrictions on schools and prospects, the NCAA has allowed the AAU programs to step front and center to control many of the aspects of recruitment, for six months of the year at least. College coaches must contact and go through AAU coaches for information about each prospect’s tastes, academics, background information and recruitment. The parents and prospect must be informed by the AAU coach concerning those colleges that have indicated interest in the prospect, while passing that information along. And in a climate where many AAU programs are closely tied in with individual shoe companies, this means in many cases adjusting the flow of information to include those colleges that are part of the same apparel company family, while in other instances, conveniently omitting information that is relevant to the families, or failing to pass along information from certain schools that have indicated interest in the prospect and wish for the AAU to convey those sentiments to the prospect and his family.

What has probably gotten the attention of the NCAA has been the recent movement on the part of many shoe companies, through the AAU programs, to grab a bigger piece of the pie financially. It isn’t surprising that money is the common denominator here, as AAU programs are starting to extend their reach and bring in a greater flow of dollars from the whole process, with the college coaches left with no voice and left to simply simmer and mumble under their breaths about the escalating cost to do business in the spring and summer with AAU programs and the shoe companies.

That money grab starts with the proliferation of websites that are operated by AAU programs. While many of these websites are informational, helpful to the colleges and designed to simply advertise their players, there are more that are springing up that are money-based and “sell” information on the prospects under that AAU teams’ banner, such as high schools, addresses and contact numbers, much of which has been included in the rosters that are available at each event. Some of these programs are omitting this information from the roster packets that are already sold to coaches at events, then directing these same coaches to their websites, where the coaches can find this information, and of course pay for it. Coaches simply can not ask the prospect or parent this information, since they are not allowed contact with them, thus they are left to follow the money, regardless of how blatant this process is. At the recent Adidas Camp in Suwannee, Georgia, the coaches’ packet for these rosters and contact information was priced at a healthy $250, while the price for the packet at the National tournament in Orlando Florida is just a bit less, at $200. With approximately 150-200 schools represented at these events, one can do the math to see that there is great money involved in this process, especially when you then have to pay at other websites to get the information that should already have been included in the event packet.

This blatant money grab into the depths of athletic programs doesn’t stop here unfortunately. The new flavor of the month is to get a “certified” showcase event and invite colleges during the evaluation period of July. Certain power AAU programs hold these showcase dates for a limited number of their prospects that play with their AAU programs, along with their younger players and a selected group of others, in many cases players they are trying to make in-roads on for the future and lure to their programs. While these limited showcase events are not nearly as valuable for college coaches as a much larger event, where they might see 10 times the amount of players, coaches are forced in many instances to attend because they fear that their future chances of attracting players will evaporate if they fail to show up and pay their respects, so to speak. Coincidentally, these showcase events can sell rosters for the event, or ask for donations to help distribute bibles into the communities, as a certain unnamed private school has been known to do.

If this sounds like extortion on the part of some AAU programs, well it really isn’t a stretch to see that the process is heavily tilted toward these AAU programs and the shoe companies, while giving little leverage to the schools who need to pay for this information and who have no voice in the process. That becomes a concern, of course, because the agenda is driven by entities other than the colleges, namely the shoe companies and AAU programs, and that is increasingly becoming a major concern for everyone from the NCAA hierarchy down to the colleges under their jurisdiction.

There are a couple of things that the NCAA and its member institutions can do to wrest some control back into the spring and summer recruiting process, before the balance of power and influence becomes even more tilted than it is now.

Enlisting more high school coaches into the summer and AAU process would be a start. As it is now, many of the AAU programs and coaches in charge of them are at cross purposes with the high school coaches in various states. With apparel and shoe company funding creeping into many of the private and prep schools across the country, some AAU coaches and programs are trying to influence their summer program players to transfer to a private or prep school where their influence and hold will be greater. It might be to a private or prep school that is also under the same apparel banner as the AAU program. Helping to bring the AAU programs and the high school coaches together more might help to alleviate the bad blood that has developed between the two parties, making for a more cooperative venture, which will serve everyone’s purposes better, chief among them, the high school student/athlete.

Taking a more proactive stance toward the shoe companies, as the State High School Association of North Carolina has done, can also be a beneficial move. By locking out the shoe companies from outfitting the high schools across the state, the High School Association has preemptively taken away a base of power and influence from the shoe companies and kept it restricted to the spring and summer, rather than the high school calendar year. By allowing the shoe companies to get a foothold in the high schools across the state, you are probably paving the way for an even greater number of transfers, as the shoe companies direct and funnel the better players toward situations that they have greater control and influence over. This disturbs many communities, who have an investment in seeing possible dream seasons changed drastically as the better players move along to different venues.

Finally, the biggest and most influential move that the NCAA could make would be one that would be both costly and controversial.

The NCAA could easily take control of the whole recruiting process by running their own summer camps.

The money that the NCAA generates from its contract with television for the broadcast rights to the NCAA Tournament is a healthy and generous sum. However, not all of that NCAA basketball tournament money is kept within the basketball community. It goes toward other sports. If the NCAA decided to keep all of its television rights money and such, the NCAA could afford to conduct its own spring and summer camps, with the intention to provide showcase opportunities for high school players across the country, with Division I coaches being able to evaluate these events. They would essentially replace the summer setup that we now see with the shoe companies driving the car with the July exposure events.

This wouldn’t be something that would come without great discussion, and it would be a costly venture, but the NCAA could find the revenue to do so, and the athletic budgets of the schools would be helped by just the revenue saved that goes toward the coaches’ packets and information at all of the July certified events that the shoe companies currently charge and extract from college athletic budgets.

The NCAA could decide to hold four certified, or exposure, events across the country during the month of April. These events would be staggered, so that any coach could decide to attend parts of all four events, if they were inclined to do. The four certified events would be regional events that would invite those high school prospects in that region. The NCAA would use Division II coaches, retired coaches, former NBA players to conduct the camps and act as counselors. This way, no Division I coach would be there and gain a recruiting advantage, by acting as a counselor at the events. This would take the place of the shoe company events that predominate the spring and summer scene. The NCAA could decide to certify only their own exposure camps and decertify the shoe company camps and events. The shoe companies and AAU programs would still be able to hold their weekend tournaments and have their exposure camps, only they would now be decertified, thus taking away some of their influence in the entire process, yet enable them to continue to exist and hold tournaments so that their touring teams can continue to compete during the spring and summer.

The NCAA could then repeat this process again in July, holding four regional camps with staggered starts, before having a third set of events in September, to match up the current recruiting calendar where coaches are allowed on the road to evaluate.

This would be a costly and burdensome beast to take on, and wouldn’t come without great discussion and plenty of resistance from a number of interested parties. It also could be the best chance of success the NCAA might have with dictating the process itself, rather than be in a defensive stance, as it now currently is.

The bottom line might be money and what the NCAA is willing to invest to recapture control. Money is the common denominator here with all parties concerned, whether it be the NCAA, colleges, AAU programs or the shoe companies. Whether the NCAA wants to engage in the kind housecleaning it would take to overhaul the entire summer recruiting process, and especially the funds that would be needed to foot the bill for the whole enchilada, is the fundamental question.

“Money, money, money, money … money.” Yeah, that could be the flip side of Sympathy For The Devil, and do you think many people know the words to either of those songs in the offices of the NCAA?

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