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Robbing the cradle

Yesterday, UK head men's basketball coach Billy Gillispie held a press conference that was essentially a defense of his recent policy to recruit players as young as the 8th grade in high school.  This is the story that won't go away, and why it is such a big story this year and not over the last couple of years when it actually broke, nobody seems to know.  It was definitely news last year when Tim Floyd of Southern California got a verbal from 8th grader Ryan Boatright, but since the verbals by Michael Avery and Vinnie Zollo to Kentucky, young commitments have become the topic of the spring.  Who was it that won the national championship this year, again?  I forgot.  It's old news.

There are several articles out there today about the press conference, but I really only want to deal with two of them:  an opinion piece by John Clay and a news article by everybody's favorite UK reporter, Jerry Tipton.

First, a look at what John Clay said.  In my opinion, John Clay is a fine writer and a good on-line friend.  He has always been respectful of A Sea of Blue, links us frequently from his blog and has emailed me a time or two helping to clarify things I've said, which I appreciate.  Clay's article was essentially a defense of the premise that recruiting players from 8th grade classes in high school is a problem, and a practice that should end.  He doesn't come to bury Gillispie in this article, but ostensibly to address the practice itself.  Here is how he broaches his feelings on the subject:

Asked if he thought this new trend was good or bad for the sport, Gillispie said, "It's just different."

Different in a negative way, I'd say. Many of Gillispie's points are valid, but you still can't shake the feeling that this somehow cheapens the game. It turns coaches into speculators, not recruiters. It turns kids into commodities instead of individuals. In a world in which we ask kids to grow up too fast, it accelerates the process.

Believe me, I understand this sentiment -- it was mine as few as ten days ago, but after careful consideration and soul-searching I have abandoned it.  Why?  Well, I will admit that the idea of recruiting the very young has a smarmy feel about it.  It just seems unctuous and a little bit wrong if you look at it in isolation.  However, in full context and with an open mind, it doesn't seem that bad at all.  In a way, even describing the process as "recruiting" is a bit of a misnomer.  Traditional recruiting is very much a two-way street, with coaches talking to recruits and working hard to convince them to come to their school over often many other competitive programs making the same sales pitch.  It is a genuine competitive process with coaches and assistants fighting for a recruit, often casting ethical behavior to the wind on the process.

The process for Avery was nothing like that at all.  Gillispie saw Avery play, liked what he saw and said so to some third party, ostensibly the player's coach.  That word got passed to both the player and the player's father, and Michael's father Howard called Gillispie until he got hold of him.  That conversation lead to a scholarship offer, which Howard passed on to his son.  They discussed the offer father-to-son, presumably involving others in his family, and Michael decided he wanted to go ahead and commit himself to be a Wildcat.

How is this different from the normal recruiting process?  It's easier to count the ways in which it was the same -- an offer and an acceptance.  First off Gillispie, as far as I know, has never spoken to Michael.  That almost never happens in traditional recruiting.  Second, there was no sales pitch that we know of -- Michael was far more aware of Kentucky and what playing there means than his father was.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, there was no competition.  No other school had offered Michael a scholarship.  There was no sales pitch, no "snake oil," no rumor or innuendo about opposing coaches or programs, no opportunity for offering illegal enticements and no reason to do so.  The process was completely pure and uncorrupted by comparison to the usual process, and finally and most importantly, Michael's  parents were intimately involved from the start.

Does that make it better?  In some ways, arguably so, but there are risks -- Avery could have a change of heart, could turn out not to be good enough for a UK scholarship, etc.  Gillespie could also not be here when Avery is ready to come, and even though Gillispie has stated he would keep his word to his young verbals, would his successor be compelled to do so?  But to me, these risks seem small compared to the amount of potentially unethical tripe the kid avoided in an apparently informed and well-considered decision.

Moving on to more of John Clay's arguments, rather than quoting the article extensively I will enumerate the points he makes and ask you to read the article carefully if you haven't already:

  1. It makes coaches look out of control
  2. Coaches are like little kids always trying to see what they can get away with
  3. Avery may not be "balanced enough or mature enough" to make this kind of decision, because "most [young people his age] are not,  And anything that encourages more 15 year-olds to follow suit isn't good."
  4. John cites numerous situations where young players have failed in professional sports.
  5. The coup de grace is that common sense tells us this is not the way to go.

All these points are perfectly valid.  I would argue that many of them are more a reflexive revulsion to the perception that young players are somehow being opened up to corruption or setting themselves up for failure by doing this, and the perception of a coaching arms race.  The former, I think, is an reluctance to look honestly at the world today -- a feeling I know all too well.  Kids grow up very fast these days, and they are still faced with life-changing decisions every single day -- sex, drugs, various opportunities for antisocial behavior, poor performance in school.  Many of these decisions are taken without involving parents.  There is no way this one could happen without the parents' intimate involvement.

In sum, I understand John's position and his lament, but I no longer find myself in agreement.  If 8th graders want to verbally commit and the NCAA doesn't feel the need to stop it, I am fine with that.  Regarding the coaches showing poor judgment, I think this is simply a reflection of fans and the schools who hire them -- that's where the pressure to win comes from.  What do you expect?  As to whether this could extend to younger and younger players, I think that it is likely to end at some age, and maybe this is it.  Before that, it seems to me the risks simply outweigh the benefits, but only time will tell.

Just to make this piece a little longer, I want to briefly look at Jerry Tipton's report today about the news conference.  Tipton has been assailed by the UK faithful and this blog -- rightly in my view -- for reporting stories from what seemed to me to be a "glass half-empty" perspective.  This was not such a piece -- it was very balanced, presenting Gillispie's opinion honestly as well as those of critics of young college commitments.  In my view, Gillispie came out looking more thoughtful and his critics reflexive, but what I really liked about the article was that it is what I consider to be good journalism -- a thought-provoking piece that fairly shows both sides but doesn't take sides.

So to Tipton, who has taken a major amount of heat from the Big Blue Nation lately (and quite a bit of it was deserved, in this writer's opinion), I just have two words for pieces like this:  More, please.