An Unofficial Joke: LeBron James And The 'New' Recruiting Problem

LeBron James changed everything, according to a new article that looks inside the world of college basketball recruiting. But before you gasp, let's all take a step back and remember Blue Chips.

With the latest meeting of the Knight Commission exploring increased payments to players and hundreds of NCAA players signing a petition demanding a bigger piece of TV revenue, ESPN's Dave Telep added a fitting coda to it all with a piece at ESPN exploring the dirty state of recruiting on today's college hoops landscape.

He begins with anecdotes from LeBron James' recruitment in 2003, back when Nike and Adidas went to war for the best high school player on the planet. Tales of how LeBron paraded himself around various basketball camps in $300 throwback jerseys, unofficially promoting a bidding war between the two richest shoe companies on the planet.

That's when it all changed, we hear.

Only ... Did it, really? Everything I learned about college basketball recruiting came from the movie Blue Chips. Then Spike Lee's He Got Game was like a graduate class, maybe—and a movie that predicted the LeBron phenomenon better than anything we ever saw from the sports media.

But really, nothing captures the Faustian bargain of big time recruiting better than Blue Chips, and this exchange between the great Pete Bell and Butch McCrae's mother.

Bell: "Mrs. McRae, do you know how the 'NCSA' regulations work?"

McCrae: "Mr. Bell, I don't know a great deal about basketball, but I do know this: A foul is not a foul, unless the referee blows his whistle."

Bell: "Mrs. McRae, do you really want your son to start out life by learning how to break the rules? I mean, what's he gonna be when he grows up? When he's out in the world, and now he's responsible and a leader of other young men? What's he gonna become?"

McCrae: "A millionaire?"

That movie came out in 1994. Maybe it's not a documentary, but it's not like they were imagining the moral gray area underpinning big time college basketball. This problem isn't new.

It's more prevalent now, but that part's inevitable. It's only going to become more pervasive until something finally changes. So as Telep, probably the best recruiting analyst in the business and a genuinely awesome reporter, recounts off-the-record conversations with college coaches over at ESPN this week (subscription required), the problem may feel real and immediate and horrifying to a college sports interloper, but not to anyone who's lived through this sport since Blue Chips.

For instance, much of Telep's article centers on the economics of unofficial visits.

The U.S. continues to endure a prolonged financial downturn. For many, money is tight. But from my perspective, it would appear that despite those circumstances, recruits, often coming from low-income households, are enjoying the most frequent plane travel by underclassmen in the history of basketball recruiting. Players and/or family members and coaches — AAU and even high school — are visiting campuses and require airfare, transportation and hotel. These mini-vacations often are booked without much advance notice and with little regard for cost. How does it happen? Easily and often.

One of the go-to moves by a college to get a player on campus is to have his coach, mentor, street agent or parent book a flight and hotel on his credit card. At this point, the player and his representatives already know they will get the money back. It's common for a school to reach out to someone close to the player and arrange repayment.

He writes of hidden bank accounts that assistant coaches maintain to funnel money back to recruits for their travel expenses, and it sounds ugly. He talks about exorbitant summer camp salaries for assistant coaches that launders money back to them after they've repaid the players.

Doesn't get much seedier than hidden bank accounts and money laundering, right? But the implicit question in all this goes ignored: What, exactly, is so horrible about people having their unofficial visits paid for? Even if it creates a built-in advantage for wealthier programs, it ultimately makes things more affordable for athletes, and broadens their options in the college process.

We also hear about street agents who furnish kids with headphones and cell phones and clothes, but we never hear about why they exist—because a lot of these kids wouldn't know how to game the system on their own. And in a world where everyone's getting paid but the trick is to not get caught, it's only natural that players would seek out an expert. If players could get paid above the table, then maybe the seedy street agents have less to offer.

Anyway, Telep ends his exposé with this:

What's the state of recruiting at the highest levels in 2011? It's pretty sad. Based on the frequent conversations I've had with those on the recruiting circuit, if you asked 10 coaches whether they feel good about the recruiting game in its current state, they'd be lying if they said yes. The other sad reality is, they'd also be hard-pressed to provide a solution for how to fix the problems.

And ... Okay. It's one thing to say coaches are frustrated, but that's only insofar as any good, honest men would be frustrated by having to work in the shadows to compete with their peers.

It's much harder to believe that any of these men are frustrated by the gradual decay of amateurism. Cleaning up AAU basketball is a whole other problem, but as far as any of this relates to college hoops, let's not pretend LeBron James is the boogeyman that created a monster.

No, the latest in a long line of college sports exposés just leads us to the same conclusion Butch McCrae's mom implied to coach Coach Bell in 1994, when LeBron James was in the fourth grade. Or the same conclusion John Wooden reached when he turned a blind eye to a booster named Sam Gilbert, 30 years before LeBron went to ABCD camp.

If so many people are breaking a rule that rules-makers have no hope of enforcing it, then doesn't that just means the rule is stupid? Call me when college coaches go off the record on that subject.

In the meantime, there's never a bad excuse to re-watch Blue Chips.

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