How To Cheat In College Football Recruiting: A Survey Of Commonly Used Methods

The NCAA intends to become more involved with college football recruiting in an attempt to curb violations. There are still several effective ways around the rules, however. We survey a couple of them.

The NCAA plans to become more involved with recruiting at the ground level, a thought putting the image of bad Narcs in teen movies in my head. They'll wear outdated clothes, or worse yet dress up like the worst stereotype of a booster ever. This will look a lot like actual college boosters, so maybe this is a great plan, NCAA. Proceed apace.

Even if the NCAA gets involved at some level of recruiting and figure out 1/10th of what happens when teams expressly forbidden from giving money, gifts, or benefits find ways to do so, they will still be behind the ever-evolving array of weapons teams who do cheat use to funnel money, gifts, and benefits to recruits before, during and after the recruiting process. It's not even that recruiters are that bright -- in many cases the solutions are often so dumb-smart you have to marvel both at their lack of creativity, and at the NCAA's inability to do anything about it.* 

*There are a lot of places to have the intelligent, reasoned debate about whether players should be paid. That falls outside of the purview of this discussion. We're not going to have the marijuana legalization debate, but instead describe the cross-border tunnels and delivery system for the contraband. No programs, players, conferences, coaches, or agents are named outside of those who have already been hit with public charges of recruiting misbehavior. They are certainly not alone in their actions, and that's kind of the whole point of this exercise.

The basics are as follows, and are by no means a universal survey of methods used to circumvent the already gap-filled border fence standing between amateur athletics and the pros. 

GOOD OLE FASHIONED CHEESE

Cash is still the secret to recruiting dirty, though the forms of its transfer have changed. Cash has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is not always in the hands of a Boss Hawg booster waiting to drop dollars on an awestruck 18-year-old. 

Cash can bleed over out of deliberate negligence from the program's own football budget, for example. Recruiting services and consultants can be paid to provide talent, often from certain important geographic areas. The consultants and services are paid to ensure talent attends programs' summer camps, and how that happens is left up to the service. The recruiting consultancy becomes a kind of formalized middle man role that leaves the programs' hands clean thanks to the delightful soap of plausible deniability.

More traditional middle men are still used in college football recruiting. Boosters themselves may tamper without the explicit knowledge of their programs, but they rarely do so in a direct cash-to-hands transaction. (Even the dumbest booster recognizes that this is potential suicide, and let's face it, cash has a way now of finding its way onto Facebook pages no matter how a recruit got it.)

Instead, boosters find different, less visible vectors for cash. Prepaid debit cards are particularly popular thanks to their portability, relative invisibility on bank statements, and ease of purchase. (The less paper, the better.) The old manual handoff is still alive and well, but happens instead via one, two, or sometimes three degrees of separation between source. Sometimes a family member is involved; sometimes an alum or acquaintance of an alum is used. The old bag man of recruiting lore rarely hands the money off themselves anymore, and certainly not in amounts huge enough to end up attracting a lot of attention.*

*Second footnote: it bears repeating that we are dealing with people, a subset of animals who are sometimes incredibly stupid in their behavior. Remember the scene in Goodfellas where Frankie Carbone rolls up in a new car with his wife in a brand new mink just after the Lufthansa heist? There are Frankie Carbones everywhere, and sometimes they do dumb things like flash cash, buy cars, and otherwise act in indiscreet fashion.

The amounts are also often far smaller than one might think: hundreds of dollars sometimes are enough to keep a recruit's attention, not the thousands often thrown around anecdotally. Think less of a "roaring avalanche" of cash overwhelming amateur athletics, and more of a "creeping but serious mold problem throughout a good part of your home, college football."

One especially slippery variant in funneling cash from booster to recruits and their families is the use of churches as a conduit for money. While literally passing the plate is not out of the question, a church is typically used as a way to launder the money in the form of a second-degree donation or via multiple smaller donations to the church itself. From that point without the power of subpoena, the money is a donation to a tax-free organization, and can be disbursed with little ability to track where the money goes. At each step the participants take their cut, and this includes the pastor/reverend/title of your choice.  

Offseason jobs, though closely monitored, also still serve as a pipeline for benefits. While the days of players showing up to collect fat checks at the chicken plant for no work have passed, the amount of work done for the maximum amount of pay within allotted hours is sometimes suspect at best. (This might be true of many jobs you worked at in college, too, though. Congratulations! You were an NCAA football player receiving an improper benefit and didn't even know it.)

GOOD OLE FASHIONED CHEESE, PART DEUX: AGENTS

Agents represent another source of cash into the system. They do not necessarily exist outside of the booster or university spigots of cash; as was alleged in the John Blake case at UNC, sometimes coaches have pre-existing relationships with agents, and those relationships can contain some kind of incentive system outside of a mere "friendship." They can be entirely separate from the program structure, or can dwell right within it. Both have happened, and will likely continue to happen.

Agents begin tracking recruits well before they blow up in college, often beginning in high school in terms of identifying talent, courting it, and then pitching the recruit via cash, benefits, and gifts to let them represent them down the road. One wide open door for agent contact (or again, for contact between middlemen for agents and recruits) are summer seven-on-seven camps, a circuit of clinics and scrimmages that has been likened to the AAU system in college basketball. As with boosters, other vulnerability comes with family contact.* 

*Even in the blinded terms of this description, it is shocking how many recruits have unscrupulous family members attempting to dig out a chunk of a player's often mythical future earnings. You say, "Oh, I bet they do," but then you start to hear stories and realize you have no idea how many hyenas are out there to fight over a single hypothetical bone. 

Their methods of funneling benefits are often more creative than those employed by boosters. One case of agents funneling benefits to players in this century involved a promotion company in a university town whose founders were also involved in scouting talent at the university and pitching themselves as agents-on-the-make. Football players showed up to bars where the promoters were sponsoring events and received free drinks and cash, often delivered right over the bar when the time to pay arrived. The sums were not staggering, but again, they were enough for college students to take notice.

(The grandaddy of all sketchy agents and a pioneer in running cash to recruits is Tank Black, who is finally out of prison after being convicted of defrauding athletes of over $15 million. Ever the agent, he insists he was a victim in all of this.)

GIFTS

You may as well write "Car" in the heading here, since the gifting of vehicles to athletes is the most visible method of providing athletes with an impermissible gift. The dodges for putting a car in a recruit's hands are innumerable and very difficult to track. Rental cars from friendly alums, loaner cars in family members' names, balloon payments provided for cars purchased with an understanding that the bulk of the debt will be paid off at the end of the loan's term...it's seemingly easier to put a car in a recruit's hands if you want to than choosing how to do it.

Travel was a focus of the UNC Agent investigation, and with good reason. In order to get recruits to camps, programs, agents, and coaches find ways to put recruits on planes, and often in creative ways like the very real use of buddy passes provided by friends of the programs to get talent to camps in order to be recruited by the program (and, of course, by agents).

Finally, the wash of tickets, gear, clothes, electronics, phones, phone cards, discounts, and most prominently free booze and food is all part of the stream of what the NCAA regards as "improper benefits" and that some schools regard as "hard recruiting." The party you go to without paying a cover, the drinks you do not pay there, the meals comped out of nowhere by restaurants, and the things people just give you for being talented, huge, muscular you all make up a kind of recruiting apparatus of its own, and one that astonishingly sometimes exists outside of the control of the schools themselves.

When Terrelle Pryor and other Ohio State football players exchanged goods for tattoos, they were fully plugged into this network of floating privilege that exists completely outside of the University's control. To their credit: at least they offered something up for the services received in what was an honest, but by rule improper, exchange and lived up to their end of the bargain. Sometimes football players involved in these kind of improper exchanges of benefits don't even live up to their end of the deal. That's happened before, too.

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