Exhibitions played in gray area
The one thing I discovered during 23 years of coaching is that when there are rules, there will be opportunities for coaches to take advantage of those rules for their benefit. One of those rules allows Division I teams to play exhibition games. The question, however, is whether coaches are bending this rule to the breaking point.
The NCAA rule book allows Division I programs to schedule exhibition games against any legitimate minor league team, from foreign traveling squads to the Harlem Globetrotters. But, where this rule becomes complicated is when a team paid to play these exhibitions is run by an AAU program. The team may be made up of ex-college players, but when associated with recruiting services, the payouts to these teams can be perceived as payoffs for either current players who chose the college team or future players being recruited by colleges.
Again, these exhibition games are nothing new. Nearly every major Division I program schedules an exhibition game or two prior to the start of the regular season. But, while these games are within the NCAA guidelines, they are scheduled within a gray area. And, in the wake of a "summer of sleaze" for the college coaching community, culminating in the NABC ethics summit in Chicago in October, any perceptions of impropriety are not helpful.
For those of you trying to decipher the recent tiff between Gary Williams of Maryland and UConn's Jim Calhoun, let me try to help.
Rudy Gay, who plays at Archbishop Spaulding in Baltimore and is considered one of the top 10 players in the country, recently committed to UConn -- over, among others, Maryland.
Soon after, UConn played an exhibition game against the Beltway Ballers, a team composed mainly of former Baltimore college players and coached by Anthony Lewis, who doubles as Gay's AAU coach during the summer. The game against the Ballers was the third straight year the Huskies have scheduled an exhibition game against an organization with players they were recruiting.
In the aftermath of losing an exhibition game to the Roanoke Dazzle of the NDBL, the NBA's minor league affiliate, Williams seemingly made reference to the Gay situation by pointing out, "We could have scheduled an AAU team and given them $25,000 like some schools I know."
Calhoun countered, "I like Gary, but I think he is taking this a step beyond. We all lose players. I was disappointed that Gary felt he needed to say something."
Whatever the reasons behind UConn's decision to play the Ballers, there are major issues to consider about these exhibition games. And whether Gay's decision played a part in this game, many coaches feel pressure to play teams coached by the summer AAU coaches of players they want to recruit. It is perceived by some to be a form of "blackmail." If colleges don't cooperate, then there is no access to recruits.
In addition, many mid- and low-major schools can't afford to pay the type of guarantees available from larger programs. This, in effect, puts them at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to recruiting.
During the Baylor catastrophe this summer, it was learned that Baylor boosters were encouraged by the coaching staff to make contributions to an AAU program which had produced several Bears players. And that AAU program, not surprisingly, showed up on Baylor's schedule as an exhibition game.
In UConn's case, the exhibition games are not against NCAA rules. Last year, a team from Louisiana played in Storrs while the Huskies were recruiting Brandon Bass, another top-10 recruit who ultimately chose LSU.
Again, there is no reason to believe that any money is being funnelled to Gay. The money paid to the Ballers went to the Cecil Kirk Recreation Center. It should also be pointed out that the UConn game was the only game scheduled on the Ballers' tour.
Credit Jim Calhoun and UConn for taking advantage of what the rules allow. Still, there is a feeling -- in and out of coaching -- that all coaches "live in the gray area" and can't be trusted to do the ethical thing if the alternative gives you a competitive advantage.
For this reason, the upcoming NCAA convention in January will entertain Big Ten-proposed legislation to close the loophole regarding exhibition games. Proposal "2003-92" will eliminate all exhibition games against non-collegiate teams. Division I programs would be allowed two competitions against Division II, Division III and NAIA programs. An exception would allow a scrimmage against another Division I program to be substituted for one of the exhibition teams.
The unfortunate consequence of this proposal would be the elimination of games against teams that, year in and year out, have provided great competition for colleges before the start of the season. Some of these organizations are undoubtedly making money from these games. But paying teams to play exhibitions never seemed to be a problem before this month. Once again, the NCAA is the little boy with his finger in the dike. When one leak is plugged, another -- in the form of a rules loophole -- will always spring up.
Fran Fraschilla spent 23 years on the sidelines as a college basketball coach at Manhattan, St. John's and New Mexico before joining ESPN and ESPN.com as an analyst last season.
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