Doing right and wrong by college sports recruits

Today’s Charlotte Observer reports the story of Clair Watkins, a senior basketball player who got one of those coveted “early commitments” from basketball powerhouse Duke. According to the story, Duke offered Ms. Watkins a promise of admission to Duke and a full basketball scholarship, a scholarship that Duke planned to honor for 4 years. It made sense at the time. Ms. Watkins is apparently an honor student and an outstanding athlete.

Recently, though, the Duke coach called and told Ms. Watkins that the program had reconsidered. Although Duke would honor its scholarship commitment to her, she would be consigned to the bench. The story goes on to relate how Ms. Watkins has reopened her college search, hoping to find a good fit between her interest in academics and basketball.

I find this story interesting and complicated. At first blush, it’s all about nasty Duke finding better players for its team and then dumping someone they had aggressively courted. That having been said, Duke apparently is willing to stick by its commitment to a 4 year scholarship if Ms. Watkins still wants to attend. Many schools would simply have withdrawn their scholarship offer, as verbal early commitments are explicitly non-binding.

So, on one hand, I find myself giving Duke respect for keeping its promise of a 4 year scholarship. Indeed, Ms. Watkins might have found herself on the bench anyway. If the Duke coach changed her mind about Ms. Watson because better players had committed to the program, or if other players outplayed Ms. Watson once she got to Duke, she’d have the same experience the Duke coach has now warned about.

On the other hand, I also think that Duke has revealed just how much it values winning basketball games over real decency. The truly decent thing to do would be for Duke to tell Ms. Watson that she needed to elevate her game in order to play, and that the coach was calling to express her commitment to helping Ms. Watson improve. To put this in perspective, should a college call an admitted student to say “We’ve reconsidered. You’ll probably be at the bottom of your class, so maybe you’d like to go elsewhere?” Or, should a college say “We know you will find our curriculum challenging. Here are all of the academic support services that will help you thrive.”? By calling with the cold shoulder, the Duke coach was hoping to get Ms. Watson to give up her scholarship despite Duke’s willingness to honor it. Apparently they didn’t really want her to come to the school unless she would be a star basketball player.

In the end, Duke has given Ms. Watson the form of a good deal without the substance. The school has denied that substance because it wants to recruit better players than someone the coach had previously identified as sufficiently gifted to merit an early scholarship offer. Duke has, despite trying to soften the blow (but not too much – Duke wants her to leave), demonstrated the fundamental cruelty inherent in unofficial early verbal commitments. They allow adults to make sweet promises to minors, take advantage of a teenager’s emotions and immaturity, and then coldly break a kid’s heart.

Recruiting Violations and the Integrity of March Madness

The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team will not be playing in the championship game tonight, but recent turmoil surrounding the program raises important questions about the direction and credibility of college sports. One need not be a cynic to wonder, indeed suspect, that serious cheating has become the norm in big-money college sports. Accordingly, the integrity of the entire NCAA tournament is under a cloud. We may marvel at the athletic skill of North Carolina and Michigan State tonight, but can fans any longer say with assurance that those teams (or any others) got their players fair and square? Such suspicion is obviously unfair to those programs that do operate within the rules, but history makes it hard to believe that there are only a few bad apples out there.

NCAA rules clearly limit when and how often colleges may contact recruits. Colleges may not use alumni to recruit in their stead, and of course colleges may not give recruits money or other items of significant value as inducement to enroll. On top of this, prospective student-athletes must meet certain academic criteria in order to become eligible to play in Division 1 college sports.

The Yahoo! Sports allegations against Connecticut detail the knowing use of Connecticut alum Josh Nochimson, a former manager of the basketball team turned agent, to communicate with prized recruit Nate Miles. Connecticut coaches, including head coach Jim Calhoun, allegedly exchanged over 1,500 calls and text messages with Nochimson, who allegedly provided the recruit with meals and other items of value. If true, these accusations reveal something beyond an inadvertent slip that technically violated rules, nor a deliberate but small “bending” of rules. Instead, Connecticut appears to have completely flouted important rules in a way suggesting that such behavior was routine. How else could those involved have failed to stop and consider the wrongfulness and consequences of their behavior? Could they have done something like this only once, and “by accident”? It is only too easy to suspect that Calhoun and his staff knew exactly what they were doing, that it was wrong, and that is was necessary to maintain Connecticut’s long record of competitive success. Perhaps even more disturbing is the notion that Connecticut presumably did not have to do this to succeed. Its basketball program is one the most successful in the entire country, one to which top recruits would presumably flock in exchange for a valuable college degree. Did Connecticut correctly think that it would take “something extra” to get the best young basketball players to enroll?

For years, baseball treated allegations about steroids as a problem of individual miscreants. Baseball officials maintained that the sport was generally clean, and that drastic action wasn’t necessary to clean things up. Even after baseball declared steroids illegal, the sport did not take systemic, forceful action until prominent players made fools of themselves in front of Congress unsuccessfully denying their use of steroids. The public now generally believes that steroid use was the widespread, tarnishing the competitive integrity of the entire sport and devaluing the achievements of players who did not break the rules. Indeed, nothing has confirmed this suspicion more than the recent revelation that Alex Rodriguez, who (like Connecticut) did not have to cheat, somehow felt it necessary to do so.

The NCAA now risks going down the road taken by baseball. It presently treats recruiting violations as individual and rare, responding to complaints about these violations with investigations that impose sanctions without truly cleaning things up. Accordingly, institutions and individuals either believe they can avoid detection, or that the cost of detection is worth whatever illicit competitive advantage is gained. This is precisely the calculation that steroid users correctly made during baseball’s steroid era. Sosa, McGuire, Clemens, and Bonds made millions, and if they are to suffer consequences, it will be because they lied under oath about their steroid use. Those who “came clean” will keep their fortunes and their careers.

The NCAA, like baseball before it, needs to rethink how it enforces its rules. Baseball finally got serious about steroids when it imposed random testing and bans for those who get caught. The NCAA should do the same. It should consider random, outside audits of Division 1 institutions and coaches. If violations are found, institutions and coaches should suffer sanctions, the former with fines, lost games, and program suspensions, and the latter with suspensions from coaching.

Without question, such audits will be intrusive, burdensome, and expensive. And of course, determined individuals and institutions can avoid audits as others have avoided drug tests. That, however, is no reason to avoid drug tests, for they make it harder for people to cheat and send important signals. Indeed, drug tests and mandatory penalties have begun the process of restoring credibility to baseball and other sports, and better enforcement would do likewise for the NCAA. Only when institutions and coaches face true consequences from cheating will they stop.

There is, of course, one other alternative. The NCAA could admit that Division 1 basketball and football players are professionals. Institutions could then pay the players what they are worth in return for the fortunes they help universities earn.