7-on-7: A touch-and-go situation
High school coaches fear third-party influence in game that has drawn scrutiny of NCAA
TAMPA, Fla. -- Deon Bush begins to smile as he attempts to recount the list of colleges and universities already offering him football scholarships.
"Auburn, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, LSU, Miami basically "
Bush, who will be a senior at Miami's Columbus High School, is one of the nation's top-rated safeties.
" Florida State, Ole Miss, Purdue, Rutgers, FIU, Tennessee that's some of them right there "
Bush rattled off the list in Tampa, where he joined all-star teammates on the South Florida Express for a 7-on-7 touch football tournament. As he pondered his football life, he said he is convinced that if not for 7-on-7 football, a spring and summertime game circuit that has mushroomed in popularity over the past five years, he would not be in this position.
"Coming into this year, I had four [scholarship] offers," Bush said.
The tournaments take place across the country -- some on college campuses -- each team featuring high school players, some of whom come from other states and cities. Games, sometimes televised on ESPN, are played without helmets, pads or tackling.
College coaches are not allowed to attend 7-on-7 games or practices, per NCAA rules. But they find ways to obtain video of games and team tryouts, where up to 200 high school players have shown up.
"They videotaped me in a tryout, and two days later I got five offers in one day," Bush said. "Ohio State, Miami, Florida, Florida State and Boston College. Since then, it's built up to 21. Without them, I wouldn't have as much exposure as I have right now."
While college coaches don't attend the tournaments, over the past year a slew of NCAA investigators have. For years, the NCAA has struggled to keep up with the recruiting and amateurism violations found in AAU basketball. In an attempt to manage the 7-on-7 scene, the NCAA has assigned seven employees to explore its underpinnings. The concern is an influx of third parties -- such as the numerous coaches on Bush's South Florida Express -- could cause players to lose college eligibility if the players receive preferential treatment or extra benefits from them.
Because of that, many high school football coaches are also concerned about just who their players are playing for. The worries also include out-of-state travel with people whose backgrounds may be largely unknown, concerns about athletes being pulled out of class, and anxiety about a lack of knowledge among 7-on-7 coaches about how the players are performing in school.
Bush's coach is one of the concerned.
"I think anybody that runs a 7-on-7 team that tells you they're doing it for the exposure of kids is trying to pull one on you to be honest," said Columbus High School coach Chris Merritt. "They're doing it to make a buck.
"The people that are running 7-on-7, you can also call them street agents, let's call it for what it is. The college coaches will be the first to tell you they would love to cut those guys out of the picture. The thing is, they're forced to deal with these guys, because if they don't, their competitor is."
While a small number of high school head coaches are involved in 7-on-7, most of the coaches on the all-star 7-on-7 circuit are high school assistants, local businessmen, athletic trainers and recruiting or scouting service operators or employees. Teams are funded through players' families, fund-raisers and corporate or private sponsorships.
What also upsets Merritt and others is that some 7-on-7 coaches, or "non-scholastic coaches" as the NCAA labels them, are injecting themselves into the recruiting process.
For example, former South Florida Express assistant Jon Drummond told "Outside the Lines" and others that he was the go-between for Express players and college coaches. That was before head coach Brett Goetz said Drummond would not be returning next season, because he violated a "Code of Conduct" Goetz makes all coaches sign. Goetz's "Code of Conduct" essentially states that his coaches cannot use their relationships with prospects for a profit.
Drummond told ESPN that "everyone knows coaches are being paid something extra to bring recruits to campus" while denying he's one of them.
Many 7-on-7 coaches, including Drummond, drive carloads of players to campuses for unofficial visits. Some coaches are paid to work camps those schools host. Some claim to receive "gas money" from college coaches.
"And maybe something for McDonald's," Drummond said.
Rachel Newman Baker, director of Agent, Gambling and Amateurism Activities for the NCAA, said one worry is influence.
"My biggest fear is that we give outside third parties who don't have prospective student-athletes' best interests at heart more room to have those prospects make bad decisions," she said. "You can call yourself a cousin, you can call yourself a mentor, you can call yourself a friend, but it's what are you doing for that student-athlete or that prospective student-athlete and where does that cross the line and potentially jeopardize that individual's eligibility?"
Goetz, head coach of the South Florida Express and a Fort Lauderdale stockbroker, has taken his team on luxury bus tours of colleges in the Southeast following 7-on-7 tournaments. He said they're sponsored through fund-raising.
Merritt said he questions if logical geography is really how stops are chosen.
"What determines whether that bus goes to Competition A or Competition B?" Merritt said. "It is profit margin? My next question would be, is my kid receiving an improper benefit unknowingly by participating in something like this that's going to cost him eligibility later on?"
In general, the NCAA is asking who -- boosters, agents, financial planners -- is funding unofficial campus tours and trips.
"Third-party street agents," Merritt said. "When the kid does lose his eligibility, where are they then? Those are the questions I need answers to before I condone one of my kids getting on a bus to go spend a week with somebody I don't know.
" There's too many of us that have done things the right way in our lives, that are working with kids, to entrust somebody that hasn't."
Goetz's South Florida Express won last year's national championship in the nation's first and largest 7-on-7 circuit, New Level Athletics. The co-founder of New Level Athletics, Baron Flenory, was investigated by the NCAA after he mentored a linebacker who went to Oregon.
The Ducks are led by his former coach, Chip Kelly. Oregon paid Flenory $3,475 for scouting services. Flenory said he wants to develop a transparent working relationship with the NCAA and that he'd even be "all for" excluding coaches who are the subject of NCAA investigations.
Flenory said that he and his organization have been unfairly attacked in media reports and unjustly scrutinized by the NCAA.
"We're not trying to take away the high school coach," Flenory said. "We're just trying to again, give the kids options. If the high school coach wants the best for their kids, why not have a third party or mentor that is good at what they do? They say, the old adage is, 'It takes a village to raise one child.' If that's the case, then why does it change when it's about somebody's high school football career?"
Flenory said that "third parties" have gotten a bad rap, though he conceded he is one, mentoring a handful of players, including most recently Justin Combs, son of rap star Diddy.
"I think third parties are wonderful," Flenory said. "I think fourth parties are even better. I think a fifth party would be great. But three, I don't even think is enough, but if you have that one third party that is a bad egg, I think that is something to be scared of."
But a "bad egg" might not include a convicted felon, for example, said Flenory.
"There are gray areas," Flenory said. "I know people who've committed felonies that are wonderful men. Now law-abiding citizens. Paid their debt to society. Now why don't they deserve that second chance? Am I the person to tell you you don't deserve a second chance?"
Some college coaches, like Joe Paterno, fear the 7-on-7 arrangements.
"There are in-between people getting involved starting 7-on-7 camps," Paterno said recently at Big Ten meetings. "And they are literally putting kids up on auction blocks so people can get a look at them. And there are guys who are soliciting kids to go to a camp and getting paid to bring certain kids to camps. You don't want those people involved in our game."
Flenory is adamant criticism is unwarranted.
"It's not a [street agent] festival," Flenory said. "It's not a petri dish for everybody bad. It's unfair to say that. Essentially what they're saying is that what we've started gives people the opportunity to exploit kids at the highest level and that's just not true and it's unfair."
Even as the NCAA explores the relationships between 7-on-7 coaches, prospects and colleges, it is also concerned about the burgeoning involvement of apparel companies such as Under Armour, in the sport of 7-on-7. The company will host a major tournament this summer and is strategizing ways to invest in the concept.
Could relationships with apparel companies lead to players being "encouraged" to attend camps or tournaments affiliated with those companies? Or encourage prospects to attend schools sponsored by the same company that sponsored the athletes' 7-on-7 teams?
Former NFL star and ESPN analyst Keyshawn Johnson coaches the Under Armour-sponsored 1925s, a Los Angeles-based 7-on-7 team he founded. Johnson has sold a reality TV show based on the team and will host a major 7-on-7 tournament this summer.
"I think it'll be huge," Johnson said. "I think it'll be big, big, big, big time. I think you'll see more sponsors get involved. I think at the end of the day, as long as the NC2A doesn't screw it up, this is gonna be bigger than AAU basketball."
Johnson knows some suggest a USC alumnus might be more likely to encourage one of his players to attend the school. It's a concept he disputes. As does Goetz.
Goetz knows some have suggested he's encouraged players to attend Ohio State or West Virginia or Florida. Goetz denies it. He also said he doesn't step on high school coaches' toes.
"I'm glad I'm there for kids, because I know the pressures," Goetz said. "These are grown men recruiting 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids, and it's a lot of pressure and a lot of kids might not have had the parental support that I've had when I've grown up. I'm always there to help a kid, but I will never tell them where to go to school."
Merritt said he has been so distressed by the headaches of 7-on-7 football that he has told all his players, including Bush, they must decide between it or Columbus High School. He says they've all chosen high school football.
Merritt said 7-on-7 coaches aren't familiar with the academic transcripts of the players they claim to help. And that too often the players are being asked to miss late-week school days in order to head out of town for a tournament.
"We're providing an environment for somebody that's not regulated to flourish," Merritt said. "You've got the NCAA that controls their member institutions and coaches. I've got the Florida High School Association that manages me, but there is no third-party government. There's nothing stopping this street agent who claims he's got the ability to send a kid someplace, to ask for money to send the kid there. There's not governance."
As the NCAA investigates his self-described "hobby," Goetz said the "black cloud" over the sport has saddened him and that he'll soon turn over control of his team to two former Miami Dolphins. Goetz said the NCAA doesn't realize slowing 7-on-7 won't slow improprieties.
"These third-party guys are going to get involved whether it's 7-on-7 football or just trying to leach around them in their own daily lives, whether it's being a trainer or whatever it is," Goetz said. "It's gonna happen, whether 7-on-7 football exists or not."
Editor's note: This story, initially published May 29, noted that ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. was no longer involved with a national 7-on-7 tournament. On June 3, ESPN released the following statement: "Mel had told us that he was no longer going to be involved, but later changed his mind and is maintaining his relationship with the tournament."
Joe Schad is a college football reporter for ESPN.