Ethics and recruiting: How far is too far?

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We have recently had numerous harsh takes on Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie this year for everything from accepting verbal commitments from middle schoolers to moving Big Blue Madness, and now we have another complaint from The Loathsome Troll Jeff Goodman -- paying players' fathers and connections to speak coach's camps.

I have discussed the ethics of accepting young recruits at length, and despite the protestations of the NABC (among others) to the contrary, there is really no ethics problem at all there -- unless of course, Gillispie goes against his word, which he gave to abide by the NABC pronouncement that coaches should not do this.  Now that Billy Donovan has violated the NABC's "strong opposition," let's keep in mind that as far as I know, Donovan never agreed to go along with the NABC, at least not publicly.  What does this mean?  Well, nothing really, but Gillispie has essentially unilaterally disarmed himself here.  From an ethics standpoint, he is now obliged to walk the walk, even if Donovan and others don't.

But therein lies what we call a an ethical dilemma -- there is a strong non-ethical consideration there, namely his job at Kentucky depends significantly on not letting others have a recruiting advantage.  Indeed, he has an ethical obligation to the University to do all he can within the rules and mores of good behavior to field a winning team.  These may well come into conflict with the NABC pronouncement if others refuse to abide by it as Billy Donovan evidently has.

But leaving that aside for now, what of moving Big Blue Madness?  No ethics problem here -- Gillispie cleared it well in advance with the compliance department and the NCAA themselves, and it was clearly within the rules.  The NABC just didn't like it because it interfered with one of their pet agenda items, and characterizing it as an ethics breach isn't just a stretch, it is a joke.  That deserves no further examination for now.

So finally, we move to this new allegation by The Loathsome Troll Jeff Goodman:

But because it certainly didn’t hurt that Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie paid Orton’s father, Larry, to speak at camps in Lexington on three separate occasions this past summer.

Goodman goes on to admit that this isn't against the rules, and he's right.  But he then asks whether this is an ethics problem, and concludes "It depends on who you ask."

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No, it really doesn't.  What we have here is essentially a conflict of interest, no different from hiring the father as an assistant coach, or providing employment for a family member at the university.  These things are all the same, and they are all clearly designed to influence a recruit's decision through their parents to come to whatever school is forking out that money.  Goodman is on to something here, as much as it pains me to say it and as poor a messenger as he is about anything to do with ethics.

Even if this isn't against the rules, it is an ethical breach by every coach engaging in similar practices, including coach Gillispie, or Tubby Smith, or Roy Williams.  The intent of the NCAA rules is to ensure that money is not in any way an incentive to recruiting -- to the player or to the player's family.  What the schools who are engaging in this sort of temptation are doing is essentially excusing conduct that flies directly in the face of the intent of the NCAA rules by claiming that it is not forbidden by those rules.  This is known as the "compliance dodge," which essentially states that if it is strictly within the rules, it is compliant and therefore ethical.  That is wrong.

As I have said more than once on this blog, the fact something isn't illegal does not make it ethical.  The purpose of the NCAA rules is to promote good behavior, not enable unethical behavior by the things it doesn't explicitly forbid.  Paying players' relatives for services that they are not competing with other equally qualified candidates to perform and, in fact, offering them said employment as a transparent attempt to influence a decision that their son or daughter makes is clearly not good behavior from an ethics standpoint.

Next, we will hear the argument that "Everyone else does it, and if we don't they will get all the good recruits and we won't."  That's a problem, to be sure.  It is, as I said before, an ethical dilemma -- a powerful non-ethical consideration is at work here, and that consideration affects not only coach Gillispie, but his employer, the University of Kentucky.  Is it strong enough to justify the paying of Orton's father, behavior that I have just declared unethical?

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Unfortunately, I am unable to answer that question with confidence.  I am not sure how much of a factor such relatively small external motivations are to recruits and their parents, and there is no doubt that when it comes to compliance issues, the UK compliance department is careful perhaps even to the point of working against the university's best interests.  Do they have a problem with this behavior?  We don't know.  They have been silent on the subject, and as any lawyer will tell you, the silent are understood to consent.

Not only that, the NCAA rulebook itself is silent on the subject, and it isn't as if this is something new -- the employment of recruits' relatives in various forms has been going on, and even complained about, for many years now.  At what point does the apparent violence this does to the intent of the rules become trivialized by the fact that is a long-accepted practice?  But it clearly looks bad, even though most people are inclined to give Gillispie a pass because the practice is widespread and not against the rules, it still looks improper and calls into question the effectiveness of the NCAA in accomplishing its objectives.

Engaging in behavior that looks exploitative is never a good thing, especially when it goes to the heart of amateurism in college athletics.  But the bottom line is, it could well be unethical regardless of the non-ethical considerations if these earnings are a significant influence in a recruit's decision.  $1,500-$3,000 or so does not seem like enough to matter in today's world, but then again, it may be enough -- remember the $1,000 Emory Express envelope?  But hiring a relative or coach looks much worse, because there is no doubt that a good-paying job would have a significant impact on the what  these individuals in a position of influence say to their charges.

So I find myself unable to judge whether or not the ethical dilemma Gillispie finds himself in here can be justified by the various non-ethical considerations pulling the other way, likely because of my UK partisanship.  What I can tell you is that I hope the NCAA explicitly outlaws the practice, because it makes coaches look unethical and places recruiting in a negative light, and I don't like my coach or university looking bad whether or not his actions are justified by the circumstances.  Much like universities paying NCAA officials to assist them when they travel abroad for games, it has an appearance of impropriety, and as in most cases, even the tiniest appearances of impropriety, however superficial, are sufficient for some to make harsh judgments about a person's character -- just ask Billy Reed and The Loathsome Troll Jeff Goodman.

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How does this compare to the other two issues Gillispie has been criticized for?  It doesn't.  Neither of the other two were even pro forma unethical, and that only requires a tiny bit of intelligence to figure out -- perhaps a level just above that of  an air-conditioned room, which would appear to exclude Reed and Goodman.  But the employment of recruits' parents in any capacity by a university recruiting them, unless it is a pre-existing relationship, is much different and goes to the very core of what the NCAA is supposed to be doing with their regulations -- ensuring players and their relations aren't being paid other than in the form of a scholarship, room and board to play at an NCAA member institution.

So instead of worrying about banning early verbals or moving a practice around, the NCAA should be focusing on pithy issues such as this and the paying of officials to referee games out of the country.  Those are actually important issues which raise legitimate fairness and integrity concerns about the college game.

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