Monday, July 31, 2006

The Business of Basketball, part 1

The state of college basketball recruiting has changed immensely in the last decade. With the advent of lightning-fast technology, it has become easier for players to be interested in a wider range of schools, and for schools to have more information on a wider range of players. However, the most important new factor in all levels of American basketball is the growing number of "recruiters" who use money from shoe companies to entice young players to let them be their "agent," so to speak.

Widely thrown into the pot of AAU basketball (in the same way that a soda is called a coke), these teams, leagues and recruiters are becoming the mainstream approach for a high school basketball player to get into college or the NBA. Players join regional teams for summer play where they travel around the country, play at shoe-sponsored tournaments and catch the eyes of college coaches and NBA scouts.

At first glance, the system seems helpful. Coaches at small colleges like Davidson are able to see hundreds of players play in one place at one time. Also, young athletes get to play against top competition and get to travel the country and widen their horizons.

After that, things begin to get iffy. With so much money pouring in from shoe companies to sponsor travel, expenses and gear the line between professional and amateur athlete begins to get skewed. In a recent Boston Globe article by Bob Hohler, he describes the "business" of amateur basketball and lays out the nasty truth of egomaniacal recruiters who claim to represent the interests of young athletes.

These recruiters have become important due to their "connections" and influence and so more and more athletes are committing their souls to summer basketball instead of winter basketball. They routinely skip high school games and practice to travel to winter tournaments with their teams. High school coaches, who used to be able to have so much positive influence on a poorer kid with bad schooling and parenting, are now being replaced by money-hungry recruiters who manipulate and con impressionable kids into making decisions that are ultimately not in their best interest.

These recruiters' financial well-being is directly tied to their ability to find the next LeBron James and convince him to give some money back to their leagues and tournaments. One such coach actually worked in operations for the Boston Celtics and had numerous kickbacks after several of his former players signed with the team. Although this stirred up many NCAA and AAU officials, nothing has been done about it.

Basketball has become a business, there is no doubt about it. However, within that business are organizations like the AAU and NCAA that are still trying to maintain high standards of amateur athletics. The question has become whether these organizations should try to exert more power on things that are ultimately out of their jurisdiction or shore up more isolation with what they can control. Come back for part 2.

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