Think recruiting in college sports begins in high school? Think again.
Middle school talent is now the concentration for recruiters at some top tier universities. According to an enlightening article in the New York Times by Mike Tierney, there are six students listed on Scout.com from the 2016 high school graduating class—meaning that they have not yet stepped foot on a basketball court.
So how young is too young?
For years, the NCAA had strict regulations concerning the communication with possible recruits, but a new rule that took effect on June 15th, 2012, allows Division I basketball coaches to make unlimited calls and texts to potential recruits who have finished their sophomore year of high school. This rule change supports the trend in recruiting younger stars.
Four years ago, Michael Avery, an eighth grader at the time, committed to playing for the University of Kentucky. The boy participated in the King James Shooting Stars tournament in Akron, Ohio, which featured the top Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) players throughout the country.
What happened to the middle school prodigy? Four years later, Avery is now playing at Sonoma State, a Division II school, while Gillispie left Kentucky and is now head coach of the struggling Texas Tech Red Raiders, who were 1-17 in Big 12 Conference play and 8-23 overall.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats are the reigning NCAA Champions. I believe their title should be scrutinized on the basis of the school's questionable AAU ties—just follow the money trail.
The AAU, one of the largest sports organizations in the country, plays an increasingly pivotal role in the lives of adolescents who aspire to become professional athletes. Its tournaments provide opportunities for young players to gain national recognition, but exposing them to recruiters at such an early age has its perils.
While the perceived benefits outweigh the costs, parents enrolling their kids in AAU programs shell out thousands of dollars annually. The fees do not include the traveling expenses to national tournaments that often are hundreds of miles away.
While its mission statement is “To offer amateur sports programs...for all people to have the physical, mental, and moral development of amateur athletes and to promote good sportsmanship,” the AAU has become a quasi minor league system for college coaches and sports agents.
I have coached my son in AAU basketball and know there is much corruption. Too much money is being circulated under the table. It flows from universities seeking big time talent to the AAU coaches, who funnel it to athletically gifted—but economically disadvantaged—kids and their parents.
There is an inherent conflict between rules compliance and revenue generation. Yes, some programs do it the right way, but they are the exception. The system needs to be blown up.
The NBA has enforced stricter rules prohibiting a player to enter the draft immediately following high school graduation. However, the league does not get involved with college recruiting violations. That remains NCAA's jurisdiction.
There are no federal laws that prevent recruiters or alumni from giving gifts to young players or their family members.
In his revealing book, Dead Coach Walking: Tom Penders Surviving and Thriving in College Hoops, Penders, one of the winningest basketball coaches in NCAA history, sharply criticized AAU coaches for their links to sports agents. He bravely called for background checks and barring college coaches from attending AAU-sponsored events.
Penders believes that once a college coach starts recruiting players from AAU programs, his school is asked to pay for trips, hotels, and other expenses. Head coaches at top schools are judged based on performance. If they don’t win, they won't have a job for very long. Thus, they are more inclined to take risks and bend the rules—or have others do it for them.
Since a school cannot offer money directly, the transfer is often made by boosters and alumni. The university head coach's hands can remain "clean" while the AAU directors benefit from the talents of minors.
Often the money gets filtered to the families of young players to help them pay for rent or extravagancies. Many AAU coaches expect that they will receive a cut of their player's future earnings. The system is corrupt.
In the past week, the AP reported four AAU summer league teams were banned from participating in the July evaluation events because of ties to sports agent Andy Miller, founder of ASM Sports agency.
Miller was upset with the teams about his return on investment; he gave financial aid to them and in return expected to gain future NBA players that he could represent. It wasn't happening.
For the illegal recruiting procedures to be eliminated, harsher penalties must be imposed. Since the AAU is a tax exempt non-profit organization, proper records must be filed; this includes director expenses and incomes.
The money trail should be transparent.
Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice. Among his high profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.
Earlier in his career, Jed coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA). Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.