NCAA Basketball: Needless Fraud, Waste and Abuse

I have been a little late writing this piece because of other demands, but this all started with an article by Mike Miller of MSNBC's Beyond The Arc pointing out this New York Times piece by Pete Thamel.  What this is all about is the price coaches are forced to pay for admission to AAU tournament games, disguised as "packets" of information about the high school players.  You might reasonably believe that information would cost you around $50 bucks, tops.  You would be wrong:

Forget travel and food. Some coaches have to pay $350 simply to see players in a single game at a tournament, or even more if they want extra scouting information. You know, really top-end stuff like players’ names and where they go to school.

If it sounds nuts, that’s because it is.

That's right, coaches have to pony up some serious dough just to attend these events.  It varies from event to event, but in every case under discussion, the purchase of these packets are mandatory for coaches (presumably, the general public pays something like $10 or so to attend).  So if you are a coach, and even if you know who you are watching, you have to pony up a couple hundred or so just for the privilege, whether you want all that or not.  Here's Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings' experience recently at a Memphis event:

Just after sitting down with some fellow college coaches, two tournament employees told Stallings that he had to pay $295 for a packet of rosters and information that doubled as an admission fee for college coaches. The coaches in attendance told him that they had been required to do the same thing.

Stallings said he had paid a $10 admission fee and did not want or need the packet, so he hit the road out of principle.

It's hard to blame him.  The article goes on to explain that Stallings was there just to see one recruit, and he didn't need the information packet to identify him.  He knew who he was, yet the organizers were insisting that he purchase information which was utterly useless to him for an exorbitant fee.

Needless to say, this revelation has prompted quite a bit of commentary in the blogosphere and mainstream media, and rightly so.  You can see by Mike Miler's comments that he finds this practice outrageous, as do many of the coaches.  But the problem goes even deeper than that.  Many of the coaches are paying hundreds of dollars for what are essentially blank pieces of paper:

Louisville assistant Steve Masiello was indignant at the one packet’s cost – because it had bubkis. "I refuse to pay $250 for a blank piece of paper," he told Thamel.

In most of the United States, this is not really extortion, as some have labeled it -- it is fraud.  It is so bad, and so apparently widespread to defraud coaches out of money with essentially nothing, that the NCAA has decided to suggest a radical solution -- that the organizers of these events consider, you know, providing at least some defensible modicum of value for the information:

In order to avoid NCAA intervention, event operators who choose to sell packets of information to NCAA coaches are asked to make every effort to ensure that the packets of information are complete and accurate.  In addition, it is not an acceptable practice for prospects' coaches to substitute their own demographic information for that of the prospective student-athlete.  It is important that the prospect and his/her family retain the opportunity to exercise control over the recruiting process, so please ensure that each prospect's demographic information appears in these packets.

What a hot, steaming bucket of bovine excrement.  Yeah, the big, bad NCAA might "legislate" away the right that they have apparently granted the organizers to charge ruinous fees if they don't stop providing -- I kid you not -- "prospects' coaches ... own demographic information."

So where is the outrage?  Well, coaches apparently feel that complaining too loudly about this behavior is not in their best interests, lest the AAU coaches involved in this undertaking decide to punish them by throwing sticks in the way of their recruitment of prospects under their charge.  Now, let that roll slowly around in your mind for just a second -- the NCAA coaches fear that the AAU coaches will begin acting as de-facto agents ... for themselves!  And at the expense of the young men under their charge!  Astonishing?  Yes, even for the putrid underbelly of NCAA recruiting.

Now, before I get too carried away, I don't mean to suggest that it is somehow immoral for the organizers of these events to charge coaches more.  In fact, I would argue the opposite, and Mike DeCorcy explains why:

College coaches also have spent money on fine restaurant meals and private plane travel when on the road during the NCAA's summer evaluation period. And many of these coaches are paid six figures (high-major assistants) and seven (big-time head coaches). But when some tournament organizers in July asked the coaches to pay as much as $300 for tournament "books" – essentially rosters for the competing teams – some not only balked, they griped.

The lesson: It's OK for nearly everyone involved in summer recruiting to make money, but not for the people who organize and run these summer tournaments.
 
Just so we're clear on that.

DeCourcy's right.  It is not fair for the AAU guys not to get paid, at least a little, for their event.  Let's be clear about one thing, though -- these events are sponsored by others, mainly shoe companies and other athletic interests.  It's not as if the organizers are going to be out of pocket if nobody shows up -- that's just a dodge, if anyone is actually suggesting it.

On the other hand, this is America.  People are allowed, and should be allowed, to charge for viewing of these kind of events.  Plus, DeCourcy is right about another thing -- if a coach can spring for a $300 meal at Emeril's Delmonico Steak House or Wolfgang Puck's Spago, he can afford a little extra to be seen by his star recruit in a tournament. 

So I have a really simple solution, and here's how it works:  Set up different levels of access, just like political dinners do -- up close and personal with extra information for the coaches who are willing to pay more, and just a seat in the arena for the general public and those coaches for whom that information and access is useless.  Better seats, a genuinely useful and complete data package, and ability to be seen by the recruits.  For everyone else, the regular seats  at a nominal fee.  That way, Kevin Stallings can sit up with the rest of the regular folks and watch his prospect.  Kind of like the difference between first class and coach.

With this arrangement, the coaches who are willing to pay get what they want -- an "unobstructed view," if you will.  And as a bonus, they get a packet of information that at least has all the correct, up-to-date contact information and some other useful stuff to take home as a souvenir.  The pinchpennys can sit with the rest of us, and do whatever it is they do.  As a double-super-secret bonus, the tightwad coaches or ones for whom the investment is a bad one (like the Stallings case) get to meet lots of NCAA and AAU basketball fans like you and me -- win, win, win!

But if you want to sit with the coaches, you gotta spend a little more.

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