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For Shame! It’s the End of Live April Basketball

January 22, 2009 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

It must really chap the NCAA’s hide that they have no way to truly regulate travel team basketball with high school players.  It is out of their jurisdiction, but make no mistake: they have had their sights set on this for a while now.  And on Friday, their latest bad move came to pass, as this April and those in future years will not have any live weekends of travel team basketball for Division I coaches to evaluate.

At the 2009 NCAA Convention on Friday, proposal 2007-30-C became a final piece of legislation, as 54 percent (188) voted to support it and 45 percent (154) voted to override it.  During the 60-day override period after the legislation was adopted last April, 62 requests to override came in, well above the 30 needed to initially defeat the measure.  But since the number was less than 100, the board of directors could still adopt it pending a full membership vote at the convention, and opted to do so in August.

As has been stated and elaborated on here before, there are a number of practical reasons to hope that this legislation would be defeated.  This legislation will certainly not accomplish what it allegedly sets out to, but make things worse.  On top of that, there’s so much hypocrisy and grandstanding among those supporting it that it’s probably symbolic that the full membership vote on it took place just outside Washington – a place where those two traits are certainly not in short supply.

The hypocrisy and grandstanding all concern academics.  A key motive for this was related to academics, as the legislation’s text expressed a concern about missed class time by student-athletes who participate in these events.  Put aside that this concern is overblown and misses the fact that live weekends in April often include the week that schools are on vacation, as well as the fact that only a small number of the student-athletes even play to the end of these events on Sunday.  That’s reality, but it’s not as important.

The reality is that making these events dead to Division I coaches is not going to mean an end of the events by a long shot.  Players play; they go to these events to compete.  Getting seen by Division I coaches is just the icing on the cake.  There are plenty of such events in May on dead weekends, and even in April on weekends like the Final Four, where coaches cannot be on the road, or even national SAT/ACT week.  Supporters think college coaches attending these events is a tacit endorsement of less academic focus, which is nothing short of ridiculous.

But more to the point, Damon Evans, the athletic director at Georgia and the chair of the newly-formed NCAA Leadership Council, said in the NCAA’s release on this, “By overriding this particular piece of legislation, what we would be saying to our prospective student-athletes is that academics doesn’t matter.”

This is a very interesting comment from an athletic director considering the turnover in head coaches every year.  Aside from NCAA violations, coaches are hired and fired based on wins and losses, not the academic achievement of their players.  Where has Evans been all these years when coaches have been fired despite having a solid graduation rate?  Doesn’t that tell prospective student-athletes that academics don’t matter, more powerfully than not allowing coaches to properly evaluate the young men they are recruiting?  I don’t recall Evans speaking out or trying to pass legislation that would change this so we can send a powerful message about the importance of academics to the student-athletes, current and prospective.

In fact, let’s keep an eye on the coaching situation at Evans’ school.  Dennis Felton has been speculated to be on the hot seat there, but the team’s media guide notes that he has a 100 percent graduation rate in a tenure that started after an academic scandal at the school with the prior coaching staff.  He entered this season with a 75-80 record, and the Bulldogs are currently 9-9 in 2008-09.  If the Bulldogs finish the season at, say, 17-16, giving him a record of 92-96, let’s see if Felton still has a job for next year in Athens.  Let’s see how much academics really matter to Evans.  Let’s see what kind of message we tell prospective student-athletes about how much academics matter.

Evans isn’t alone on this, however.  The Division I Men’s Basketball Issues Committee, a major supporter of this, is composed of several athletic directors.  These are the same people who fire coaches based on wins and losses, no matter the academics.  While coaches are held accountable for academics, save for a scandal that involves an NCAA investigation and sanctions, I don’t recall a coach getting fired because his players were consistently sub-par academic achievers, or even keeping his job because he graduated everyone.  Now all of a sudden athletic directors want to be concerned about academics?

Don’t believe for a second that the real motive behind this legislation has anything to do with academics.  That may be what supporters are publicly saying, but it’s inconsistent with most other actions and it doesn’t stand up to reality.  Put this in the category of their latest failed attempt to regulate travel team basketball at the high school level, because that’s what this really is.

Another reason this will be a failure is that the legislation is not going to accomplish a couple of things noted in the rationale for it.  Most notably, the legislation mentions that it wants to address “the disruption to the relationship between NCAA Division I basketball coaches and their own student-athletes during a critical academic time period and the increasing role of outside influences during the April contact period.”  Let’s look at both, because a few coaches had some things to say on these matters as well.

By taking away these recruiting weekends, coaches will now be on the road recruiting during the week in April, and at multiple sites.  Put aside the fact that this will be a budget-buster for a lot of schools – especially those outside of BCS conferences – and that we’re in a terrible economy right now, whereas they could see many kids in one setting on weekends in a more cost-effective manner.  The more relevant thing is that the current student-athletes are in class during the week, when coaches now have to recruit, and not on weekends.  This doesn’t seem to address a disruption to the relationship between the coach and current student-athletes at all – if anything, it seems to cause a new disruption because coaches won’t be on campus.

“The important things to me are being able to be with my team during the week and recruit on weekends,” says George Mason head coach Jim Larranaga.  “My feeling is that we’ve got to spend times with our own teams more, but if they change the rule, coaches are going to be gone Monday through Friday and home on weekends.  That to me doesn’t make sense.”

“Our coaches will be away from our programs more, in terms of academic and player management issues,” says Old Dominion head coach Blaine Taylor.  “We will have less staff presence during the spring, which is an important time.”

UNC-Wilmington head coach Benny Moss really summed up a lot of the pluses of having live weekends in April: “I want to be there when (his current players) are in class, help them, and then on the weekend, I can go to an event and see a larger number of kids at one venue to develop a deeper list.  It helps my budget, for July we get a bigger list, plus it allows me to be on campus during the week, when my players need me to be there.”

In short, this legislation not only takes college coaches out of the equation with prospective student-athletes, but also with their current ones, too.  The benefit of that escapes me, and I’m sure many others as well.

If the NCAA thinks that eliminating the live weekends in April will lessen the impact of outside influences on the kids, they must have caught too much of the Washington air that seems to put people there out of touch with reality.  By taking college coaches out of the equation – as mentioned earlier, this legislation will not mean an end to events like the Houston Kingwood Classic, Real Deal in the Rock (formerly Real Deal on the Hill) or King James Shooting Stars Classic – this legislation only adds to the opportunity for unsavory influences to be in kids’ lives.  Those outside influences will continue to have easy access to the kids, while college coaches have less access.

What will the end result of that be?  Inevitably, more transfers – and the number of transfers has already been alarming in recent years – as well as more cases like the O.J. Mayo saga at USC.  This isn’t to say that having live weekends in April would prevent that from happening – indeed, April had live weekends for every year that Mayo was a prep star – it will only help set the stage for more of it.  As long as college coaches have less and less access, as will occur from this legislation, outside influences have more and more opportunity to influence kids.

“We have to evaluate players, and we’re getting such limited access to them now, that’s why you’re seeing so many transfers – we don’t know them, they don’t know us, and our access is being limited even more,” says Delaware head coach Monte Ross.

It’s also worth noting that the bum rap that travel team basketball gets is a bit undeserved.  There are certainly issues there – anyone who is around it at all understands that there are plenty of politics in play – but quite frankly, travel team basketball and the Amateur Athletic Union have nothing on the NCAA.  Unfortunately, the NCAA is too out of touch to realize that.

“Obviously, just like there is in college basketball and all different sports, and all different aspects of life, there’s going to be a few bad people, there’s going to be some bad situations with certain people, but for the most part, it’s a huge positive,” says Hofstra head coach Tom Pecora.  “There’s bad high school coaches out there, there’s bad college coaches out there.  There’s bad doctors and there’s bad mechanics.  That’s life.  You don’t let those people dictate the way you’re going to go about doing business day-to-day.”

Another end result will be a negative for the people who have no voice whatsoever in all of this – the kids.  They will continue to play, contrary to the NCAA’s belief, but now late bloomers won’t be discovered by college coaches in the spring after their senior year.  More kids will fall through the cracks because they aren’t properly evaluated, especially if they live in an isolated area where coaches can’t easily get to and they are the only Division I prospect within a large radius.  And now that April is out of the picture, July becomes much more important – and the kids are already taxed during that crazy month with seemingly non-stop action.

While scouting services and other members of the media may observe players in April events, no one can determine a player’s suitability for their program like a college coach.  It isn’t just about talent; talent is only one part of it.  Coaches generally recruit players for a certain style of play and a certain way they run their program; that’s how teams develop distinct reputations in terms of how they play in addition to a level of success.  That’s why, even though we in the media still have access and can spot talent, our evaluations of players aren’t as meaningful as those of coaches.

The NCAA makes a boatload of money off student athletes – $545 million per year just from its television contract with CBS Sports.  Given that this legislation means coaches will have to spend more time away from current student-athletes, and also hurts the prospective student-athletes, is it any wonder that some think “NCAA” stands for “Nobody Cares About Athletes”?

The NCAA loves to talk a good game about the student-athletes, especially concerning academics, but like anything else in life, it’s in the “doing” that the story is told.  Their doing is not positive, and it just had another negative – all in its latest attempt to try and regulate travel team basketball.

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