Each year the conference commissioners and, in turn, the NCAA, banter back and forth on the topic of third-party influences, the recruiting calendar and how to manage the state of grassroots basketball. This spring is no different as the NCAA has on the table legislation that appears to be designed with the idea of altering the landscape of grassroots basketball.
We warn you: None of the proposed changes has the singular effect of cleaning up the system, and some of them could actually have unintended consequences.
What we have: Once a prospect's high school season ends, the college coaches are unable to evaluate players until July. During July, a pair of 10-day periods allow coaching staffs to travel coast-to-coast to watch games. The spring evaluation period (more specifically the April AAU/traveling team schedule) is closed to coaches.
The proposal: Two alternatives were presented for discussion. Both proposals would initially slice the July period in half, allowing for three weekends of evaluations. One proposal leaves room for a pair of evaluation weekends in April, allowing coaches to watch AAU events. A second proposal, championed by the SEC, keeps the coaches away from tournaments in April and moves to abolish the July system in favor of an NCAA/USA Basketball cooperative to be set up in 2014.
The fix: The calendar is not broken and a radical change is too much of a shock to the system. The idea here would be to tweak the calendar but not blow it up.
Opening the April period up for coaches on a limited basis makes sense and gives them an opportunity to evaluate while providing prospects with a platform to showcase their talents in front of the decision-makers.
Two years ago, the April period was closed with the hope of limiting players' contact with third parties and giving coaches a chance to catch their breath following the season. The result was a multitude of complaints from coaches and no reduction in events. Kids picked their AAU team and went out and played in front of the media and scouting services. The only thing missing is the coaches who control the scholarships; the rest is business as usual.
The reduction of the July period has the feel of April all over again, and it isn't really necessary. It's taking away a critical aspect of the evaluation process. Every summer event has to be certified by the NCAA and coaches can attend only the events that are sanctioned by the NCAA. Compliance officials are out in full force watching for illegal contacts. Even if the July period were to be abolished, players are going to play regardless of when the NCAA says its coaches can attend. The legislation would not necessarily trigger the intended change and could hurt both the players and coaches.
NCAA evaluation camps
What we have: Currently there are no NCAA-sponsored evaluation camps.
The proposal: The SEC proposal creates an alternative to conducting events in July and attempts to shut down the AAU system as we know it. The NCAA, in conjunction with USA Basketball, would run a series of evaluation camps, which would be the only certified events in the summer.
The fix: The NCAA should remove the proposal from its agenda.
For the NCAA to get into the camp business would be to go down a road it cannot handle. There are numerous problems inherent with this idea. The selection of players would be a massive undertaking and would create a recruiting czar who would have to rubber-stamp players as good enough to be involved in the camps. It would likely create a series of enormous camps (maybe 200 kids at a time) that would make it challenging to evaluate players. Camps are not teams and colleges would have no chance to evaluate players within a team setting.
USA Basketball has done wonders in reclaiming its status as the elite basketball organization in the world. However, its camps are designed for 24-36 players at a time. The SEC proposal looked at a model for camps used by USA Basketball that does not fit the needs of an evaluation camp containing a few hundred players.
Lastly, the idea of the NCAA running camps and limiting exposure for kids looking to get scholarships seems like a legal brouhaha in the making. What happens when a player gets left out of the NCAA camps and decides to sue?
Keep this in mind: Not every third party is a negative influence in the life of a high school basketball player. Abolishing a critical aspect of the calendar is a radical idea that would do more harm than good. Grassroots basketball is a component of our basketball culture. At every level, there needs to be a tweak -- but the elimination of July events in favor of NCAA camps would be a tough sell to coaches, kids and attorneys.
Contacts with recruits
What we have: The current system has tight regulations on phone calls, and college coaches are not allowed to text prospects. Coaches may email and use Facebook. The NCAA likely finds it difficult to regulate the new forms of communication outside of phone calls and text messages.
The proposal: Following Aug. 1 of a prospect's junior year, there would be unlimited contact from a coach to a player via telephone, text, social media, etc.
The fix: Allow players to text-message coaches but keep restrictions on telephone calls.
This proposal is a concession from the NCAA. New forms of communication are difficult to regulate, and in the ever-changing world of technology, there's no need to attempt to regulate something so vast. However, by unleashing the coaches and giving them unlimited calls to recruits, the legislation fails the players themselves.
Prospects in 2011 use text messaging, Facebook, Twitter and email as their primary means of communication. All of those things are available to them on their phones. The prospect who wants to spend an hour on the phone with a college coach is a dinosaur. Kids keep in touch in doses. By allowing unlimited contact from coaches with telephone calls, they're merely creating a generation of call screeners.
Sooner than later, coaches will inevitably complain that they can never get the player on the phone. It's conceivable that instead of the kids talking on the phone, the influence of third parties would rise. College coaches who can't get enough information out of the kids will seek out third parties to take the temperature of the recruits.
Allowing for unlimited text messaging is a strong move that shows the NCAA is in step with the communication climate. Protect the players from having to fend off aggressive coaches, and implement a system that regulates phone calls for the benefit of the recruits.
Official visits and tryouts
What we have: Recruits have to wait until their senior year begins before they can take official visits. Tryouts are not permitted.
The proposal: The NCAA legislation would allow for official visits to begin April 15 of the prospect's junior year. It would also allow for tryouts during an official visit following completion of a medical exam. It also allows for schools to pay for parents/guardians to join their son on his visit.
The fix: Implement the legislation and give it a try.
Reading the tea leaves here, it would seem at least a portion of the intent may be to curb unofficial visits. A major area of cheating and improprieties comes when prospects visit unofficially the first three years of their high school careers. The unofficials are regarded as visits that are most susceptible to the third-party influence. By allowing for official visits earlier in a prospect's career, it can be seen as an attempt to curb this trend. It may or may not work, but it's at least worth a try.
One idea in conjunction with the official visit would be to allow a player to sign a letter of intent earlier. It seems practical that if a prospect is allowed to formalize his recruiting with an official visit, why should he have to wait to sign a national letter of intent until the early period?
Allowing a school to pay for a player's parents or guardian during a visit is a step in the right direction. Legislating who can accompany the player is going to be tough because many of these situations deal with nontraditional family members. This concession impacts the budgets of non-big six level schools and forces them to pay for extra plane tickets, lodging and meals. This logical legislation may actually put some programs at a competitive disadvantage financially.
As for tryouts, allowing them in the spring of a player's senior year makes the most sense. At that point a tryout would allow a coaching staff to get a better feel for a late-blooming prospect. When coaches are in scramble mode to sign players in the spring, a tryout may be the just the means to help reduce the transfer rate. Tryouts give under-the-radar prospects a final chance, but there's a time and place for them.
Allowing tryouts earlier in the process seems to acknowledge a shortcoming of the evaluation system. Coaches have 130 evaluation days a year to figure out if a player is good enough. To do this, they need high school and AAU game evaluations. A player at the tail end of his junior year needs to be seen and evaluated. He shouldn't be made to feel like he's on audition for his scholarship. This is a byproduct of not allowing the coaches out in April and reducing their days in July.
A few other thoughts
• The calendar proposals were put forth by authors from the big six conferences. It would appear that the new legislation has been created without the little guy in mind. Low and midlevel schools need target-rich environments to satisfy their need for mass evaluations and balance the ability to do their jobs with the economic state of their program. Small-conference schools need the April and July period to identify and evaluate a higher number of players than its larger conference brethren. Yet they seem to have no voice in the legislation.
• With a skyrocketing transfer rate, it seems counterintuitive to limit evaluations during the April and July months.
• There is no surefire fix to the system. You can't legislate ethics. The problems of grassroots, college and professional basketball run deeper than the proposals. These proposals -- and some have value -- are an attempt to impose regulation on an unregulated grassroots system of basketball.
• This past season and the subsequent basketball offseason have been littered with suspensions, dismissals and allegations of cheating. The NCAA has a difficult time keeping up with the improprieties. Much of this legislation would require further monitoring and in turn create even more opportunities to bend the rules. Is the NCAA ready to police its own constituents more thoroughly than it does?
The bottom line
With the new proposals, opinions are sure to be wide-ranging. While a few of the proposals would be a tough pill to swallow, others have merit and are an attempt to tweak the system for the betterment of all parties. The basketball community can accept change. However, when legislating change, it's an easier road to acceptance if the participants have a chance to be heard. They want to see the legislators at venues and taking the pulse of the game. Maybe it's time for a national recruiting summit. NCAA leaders, legislators and top basketball brass would be best-served locking themselves in a room with guys who have their boots on the ground. Could it hurt to invite a select few AAU coaches, media members, high school coaches and players themselves to Indianapolis for a discussion on the state of the game? It would be a warmly received invitation, one that lets the grassroots community into the process and could help solve some more of the problems.
Dave Telep is the senior basketball recruiting analyst for ESPN.com. His college basketball scouting service is used by more than 225 colleges and numerous NBA teams. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don't forget to follow him on Twitter.