I’ve written about the freakonomics of recruiting before,
…so this really caught my attention. The fascinating thing about it is how much information about the increasing role of street agents in college football is readily available via google, and how so little is reported. Look, I’m not an insider at all, but I googled some key words from CTJ’s post, and discovered that all you need to understand the system is readily available. The dots are very close together, it’s not hard to connect them, and yet few of the sports media websites or TV channels are interested in talking about street agents in their reams and hours of recruiting coverage.
The street agent is a new twist on the cheating game. In the past, if a recruit was for sale, it was because the recruit (or his family) put him out there for sale. With street agents involved, a recruit might be for sale and not even know it. More on that later. First, let’s review the ethics and mechanics of traditional cheating, and then get into this new form of cheating.
If we’re really being honest, as Texas fans, do we want recruiting cleaned up because we are just more interested in fair play than our competitors? Or is it because in a recruiting world that only permits competing schools to offer identical packages (tuition, meals, books, housing), Texas’ package is perceived as being more valuable than most of our competitors? I think the latter is probably the main driver, and that’s OK. In a world that strictly follows the rules of recruiting, Texas will always do well unless the head coach is perceived as a football-dumb, and stand-offish jerk (and we have had that before).
Texas only suffers in a world where recruits are bought by rivals, and Texas doesn’t reciprocate. That’s the fatal flaw of the cheating strategy- it depends on others playing by the rules. If Texas, with a Longhorn Foundation that raises $24 million per year and more sold luxury suites than any other team, decided to start courting street agents, the game would be over. As Darrell Royal said, "If I had turned the Texas boosters loose on buying players, there wouldn’t have been any left for anybody else."
So, Texas prospers in two situations- one where everybody plays by the rules, and one where nobody plays by the rules. The only recruiting environment we suffer in is one where our rivals cheat and we don’t. If forced to choose, we should prefer a recruiting system that doesn’t call for illicit payments to recruits. For one thing, it’s the right thing to do. For another, our faculty and Athletics Council have a very low tolerance for scandal, and there would be too much crap to go through if we decided to cheat.
By the way, I don’t blame the recruits for wanting money. I have often wondered what Vince Young felt at home games, seeing a sold out stadium where 10,000 fans are wearing his jersey. They paid $55 each for it, and he didn’t get a dime. If somebody is offering money for services, it’s hard to blame recruits for accepting. However, this leads to a completely different topic- the NFL’s need for a minor league system. We’re not getting into that here, although I will note that UT would prosper in a college football shakeup that resulted in relying real student athletes, as well.
I do blame recruits’ relatives and hangers-on for wanting money. They just don’t have the same long-term interests in the recruit’s well-being as the recruit. It’s one thing for a recruit to decide to commit to Podunk U., instead of Flagship State U., because he’s getting $20k and a promise of ready walking around money. It’s shortsighted, but it’s his future. It’s quite another thing for a family friend to pressure him to go there so the friend can get paid.
Before talking about what can be done, let’s break down the mechanics of how cheating traditionally works. A coaching staff decides what players they really, really want. The player, or a rep, indicates that the player expects to be paid, or for some other illicit benefit such as a job for a family member (this may actually be first suggested to the player by a recruiter). This step eliminates honest programs as a competitor. The less scrupulous coach lets a trusted booster know that he needs the booster to get involved with the kid (Do coaches have cash to distribute? In the ’50s, Wilkinson and some PAC-8 coaches were busted for having large cash slush funds, and 20 years ago FedEx envelopes with four figures were leaving the TAMU and Kentucky athletic offices, so maybe they still do. I think the big, six figure and higher payments are handled only by the boosters). Traditionally, this step involved only a little cash to the player, with a promise of more to come upon committing.
At this point, the illicit recruiting traditionally went one of two directions. Either the kid takes his required payment from the school he likes best among those offering, or he starts a bidding war. There are some programs that are willing to pay players, but not to enter bidding wars. This may be due to them having standards, or it may just be concern about the size of their payroll. Bidding wars seem to be more common in basketball than football, and that may be due to football’s larger roster size, and the greater uncertainty of a super blue chip panning out. Also, only a few elite players are deemed worth a bidding war.
The introduction of the street agent has changed this process somewhat. Typically, the big time street agents (that deal with lots of recruits, as opposed to having a connection to just one) have a business (like a recruiting consulting service) or non-profit foundation (say, for the support and development of youth) that can receive payments or donations. From boosters. Think about that a minute. Boosters can pay third party street agents that may have contractual agreements with recruits to provide services to them. And it looks exactly like a legitimate transaction. There is no direct linkage between a program and a recruit.
How does a street agent get involved with a kid? They introduce themselves to the family, represent themselves as experts in the recruiting process, and offer free advice. You have to remember that for some of these families, the recruiting decision may be the most important decision ever made. It’s an intimidating process. Can you think of any other business where executives that earn millions of dollars each year and are constantly on TV (the coaches) will travel and visit teenagers living in inner city rent houses? You can imagine how receptive a parent or kid might be to a personable "consultant" offering help navigating this process, especially if this person also seems able to relate to their life situation. The street agent tells the kid that he will help vet the recruiting schools, and weigh the pros and cons of competing offers. He tells him that he will advise him on which camps to visit, and which to decline, all as part of a grand marketing strategy. The agent might build up his relationship with the recruit by buying him some shoes or designer jeans.
Meanwhile, the agent is letting the schools know that he expects to be paid for a kid to get to a camp. For a top recruit, the price for a camp visit might be $3-5k. All it takes is for a booster to pay the street agent (via his "service") and the agent drives the kid to the camp (he’s allowed to as a friend of the family). Are you starting to understand why some recruits say they like a certain school, but never visit it, and then go across the country to visit a school they had never shown interest in before? Can you see how a kid might think a school is not interested in him because his street agent is telling him they aren’t calling? In today’s recruiting microcosm, summer camp visits are everything. That’s where it all starts. If the kid refuses to visit, especially a local kid, you can’t, in all honesty, recruit him. The silver lining in this mess is that Texas’ early recruiting means that we find out which kids are for sale early on. In the old days, a guy like Marcus Dupree could string Texas along until it was too late to recover with another recruit.
How would you find out who the street agents are, and the businesses they launder the payola through? It will take some digging and sifting. There is a vast range of recruiting businesses that are not affiliated with schools. There are national subscription websites like Rivals, and Scout, whose business models are based on selling thousands of subscriptions to largely anonymous customers. There are sub-tier websites affiliated with schools. There are services like Randy Rogers’, who consults with schools looking for recruits and by all accounts is legit. There are other database services like Bluechip Athletic Services and Cybersports that market themselves to college coaches. In other words, it is very easy set up a recruiting website "front" business for an illicit street agent that is indistinguishable from a legitimate business. The schools have NCAA-set limits on contacting recruits. The services do not. The system is constructed so that it would be a very short step to go from recruiting information service provider to recruit broker. Most of these businesses are legitimate, but some aren’t, and there are others somewhere in between in shifting shades of gray.
So, what is needed to support these businesses in the shadows of recruiting? You need coaches that are willing to cheat, even though their contracts call for them to be fired if they do. Make no mistake- recruits are not being bought without the coach’s agreement. They are the ones who have to put up with the prima donnas, and live with any promises made. In the ’90s, with coaching contracts paying $500 - 800k per year, coaches couldn’t afford the risk of getting caught cheating and losing both their job and their buyout. In the ’00s, with coaches paid more than $1.5 million per year, the arithmetic has changed. Are coaches willing to deal with the shady characters? You tell me. Here’s Bill Snyder, talking about street agents. "I think maybe in some cases they are very meaningful people that are trying to help for the right reasons," Snyder said …. "I think a lot of it depends on what your motive is.
"I’ve seen it taking place virtually everywhere. It’s catching on everywhere."
Note- Ron Prince had run-ins with Brian Butler, the 300 pounds "training consultant" (used to manage a Foot Locker) who marketed Bryce Brown, and discouraged Wildcat boosters from donating to Butler’s "foundation". Snyder is now taking in two of Butler’s protégés as transfers, from Oregon and Minnesota. Mangino has taken a couple of Butler’s guys, but they aren’t super blues. Earlier this year, Thayer Evans wrote an article about Butler for the NYT, implying that OU couldn’t compete for Butler’s recruits.
He was premature. OU’s top QB commit Blake Bell is from Butler’s camp.
Listen to this clip, and hear a coach give a shout out to the guy who brought a recruit to his camp, about 35 seconds in…
To cheat, you also need boosters willing to fork over large amounts of cash to players that may never pan out, and also willing to deal with these players and/or their representatives. At SMU, in the ’80s, this was two groups- the big money guys who funded the cheating, and the low level boosters who ran the money to the players. SMU’s eventual problem was three-fold- they were engaging (and winning) in bidding wars, their "runner" boosters liked to brag, and they got cheap- they cut off payments to the recruits that busted on the playing field. Remember- you’re never really "buying" players; you’re only renting them. One more thing about the runners- the existence of street agents may make them unnecessary now, if a player is being paid. The street agents can go directly to the big money boosters, and you can be sure they’ll keep their mouth shut. Also, the initial payments, where a program shows its interest, may be accomplished through the street agent’s business’ website. Can you imagine? Paying for players with Paypal?
Do such people really exist? Are there really boosters that would fork over $5k to get a player to visit and $100k to sign? Yes, there are. Go to the stadium of any big time program and count the luxury boxes. Most modern stadiums have 50 - 100 of them. Every suite owner can afford to buy a player, and many boosters that don’t own suites but do own blocks of seats on the 50 yardlines can afford the payments, too. You only need 5 - 10 to be willing to pay. The amounts of money required are not the barrier you might think. In the ’50s, California’s top-rated schoolboy halfback got $50k, putting Reggie Bush’ 2005 salary to shame. SMU was paying stars $2k/month in the ’80s, equivalent to $4k/month today- tax free. College football is a bigger business than ever before, so it would be foolish to assume that the amounts paid under the table would shrink.
What do they get out of it? They get to be insiders, and feel like partners with the head coach- because they actually are partners. When their school wins a game, they get the satisfaction of knowing they helped. Also, they truly love their alma mater, and believe they are doing the work of the angels in helping it to compete at the highest levels. You have to understand that a crooked booster buying players to keep his school competitive against the more desirable campuses has the same attitude of love that a father buying a nose job for his 16 year old daughter has. In both cases, they are just trying to make life more "fair".
So, if we agree the elements required for cheating exist, can we assume that it is happening? I think there is enough evidence that it is- Reggie Bush’ "agent", Albert Means, and the curious visit choices of top recruits. Just look at all of the links to unsavory characters I so casually found. These guys aren’t spending so much time with these kids for free. Then think of the Hobson’s Choice college coaches are given today. They want to recruit a player associated with a street agent that may be semi-legitimized by his recruiting analysis or recruit consulting business. They may think the recruit is honest, although under bad influences. However, to be a player in his recruitment they have to deal with the representative. Is it really a big deal if they decide to subscribe to the service, just to, you know, get their foot in the door and reach the kid? If you don’t pay, you suspect that the field just tilted up against you.
Then if a coach decides to deal with the services and advisors, what if the representative tells you that another school has promised something- a job for a relative, or payments from a booster that they will never be busted for because the agent is going to launder it for them? At this point, the coach realizes what a Faustian bargain he has made. By the way, do you know what they call coaches who refuse to deal with street agents at all? They call them "lazy". They quickly pick up reps among the recruiting gurus as guys who just won’t try very hard to recruit.
And when you look at basketball…my goodness. I think of Kansas and Duke as being the gold standard of college basketball. Both have recruited players coached by street agent and AAU coach Myron Piggie. He is in jail now, and he has had players lose college eligibility in the past for taking payments from him. Piggie, as corrupt as he was, had a Nike salary and was welcome into the gyms of college basketball’s crown jewel programs. If basketball can live with such open and institutionalized corruption, how can one think that college football is immune from similar illicit practices? If schools are willing to hire an AAU coach as an assistant coach just to get a player (perfectly fine with the NCAA, by the way), why wouldn’t they be willing to commit the same amount under the table without having to deal with some seedy character? Shame? Fear of getting caught?
…which leads to the next step- regulation of recruiting. As we’ve seen above, the current rules are next to useless to stop street agents from brokering players. Yes, it is against the rules for boosters to pay for players, but it’s not against the rules for boosters to do business with third parties with relationships to recruits unless it can be proven that there is a direct quid pro quo arrangement.
Traditionally, there have been two groups that have taken on the task of regulating recruiting and enforcing rules. First, there were the conferences. They were formed early in the 20th century to regulate the sport. They did that task well, but unfortunately different conferences had different standards. By mid-century, the NCAA took over and the conferences focused on marketing. The NCAA did a credible job for many decades, with its high point being the 10 year period after the SMU Death Penalty scared all of the outlaw programs straight.
Since then, recruiting has started to get out of hand again. You have street agents as a regular part of college basketball. You have football players’ representatives charging appearance fees to show up at camps. Why has the NCAA allowed this situation to get out of their control?
Money, of course. The NCAA owns the NCAA basketball tournament, and the NCAA gets and distributes much more money from basketball than football. The NCAA doesn’t want to do anything to tarnish the reputation of its cash cow, college basketball. As the NCAA has gotten wealthier, it has become less interested in regulating college sports, and more interested in marketing college sports. Investigating successful programs just hurts the brand.
So, if UT desires a college football world where illegal inducements aren’t provided to recruits, how does it make that happen? College sports could be cleaned up a lot by enacting these simple rules:
Require scholarship athletes to submit their families’ annual tax returns, just like recipients of financial aid are required to do.
1. Have the conferences set up independent compliance groups to audit jobs programs and tax forms, instead of the individual schools.
2. Ban the hiring of recruits’ relatives and close associates by the schools.
3. Have a conference forum for evaluating street agents, with the power to not allow a recruit to compete in league competition if it is determined that a third party brokered their recruitment.
4. Have all subscriptions to recruiting services by schools be administered by the conference. Have no individual contracts between schools and services. Maybe booster subscriptions should go through a conference portal as well.
If such rules were proposed at a NCAA or conference meeting, would they be approved? They should be, because they would be to the benefit of the 80% of NCAA programs that win 20% of the championships- the Iowa States, Arizonas, Mississippi States, and Minnesotas of the college sports world. The programs that are buying players are reducing the talent pool for the small programs much more than for the perennial contenders. And if the cheating continues until the big time clean programs have had enough and want to change affiliations, the resulting conference shake up will leave several small programs on the outside, never again to rejoin the big boys’ club. This happened in the 1910’s, when Hardin-Simmons, ACU, Centenary, and similar schools from around the country (previously big football powers) were consigned to second rate status. It happened again in the 1950’s, when the NCAA era dropped William and Mary, VMI, and the Ivy League to D-1AA, and it happened still again in the ’90s when TCU, SMU, Rice and Houston were dropped to mid-major status. What we have learned from all of these relegations is that once a school is dropped from a major conference, it can never make it back. Enforcing the rules is in the best interest of the vast majority of NCAA programs.
I suspect the small programs wouldn’t vote for these rules, though, for fear of change from the current order during these tough economic times. This is a huge miscalculation, since a system of rogue schools cheating is not, and has never been, sustainable. There is inevitable a game-changing scandal, with a shake up to follow.
How about increased transparency? CTJ suggested hiring a PI to document the financial transactions, and then handing the findings over to the NCAA or the media. This is pretty much what happened in the ’80s. SMU, stung by their first round of penalties (pre-Death Penalty) turned in rivals. They knew who was cheating because of their status as the winner of multiple bidding wars. They interviewed their players for details and fed the findings to the NCAA and media.
I’m generally in favor of transparency in business. There are two issues to be prepared for, though, before trying this. The first is that Texas sure better be clean if this route is chosen. There will be repercussions and retaliation. The second big issue is that such a course of action will end up with Texas leaving the Big 12. I don’t particularly like the Big 12, but this is not the way to leave it. I suspect that the conferences that would have welcomed UT in the ’90s would be a little wary of a school that had seen two conferences tank in 15 years.
There is one thing an interested observer could do. CTJ, you didn’t mention the name of the alleged Houston street agent. You could e-mail the Compliance Department of whatever school his represented athletes enroll at, and cc the NCAA. Just a little note saying something like, "Are you aware that recent recruit ‘Bryce Scott’ was represented in his recruiting by a street agent, who owns the "Scouting Solutions" business, and that this guy was paid by your boosters before Bryce would attend your camp"". This will start at least a perfunctory investigation by the guilty school, even if intended only to whitewash it. It could also screw up whatever deals the player has set up (I think Texas screwed up a job for Darrell Scott’s mom) and leave a record in case a greater scandal erupts at that program.
There is one more avenue for stopping this form of cheating. I have posted before on the odd outcome from the initial creation of the athletic conferences 100 years ago- the schools that agreed to join and follow more restrictive rules ended up much stronger competitively than those that didn’t. If Texas could enlist some like-minded programs- Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State, Nebraska (i.e. the programs that have great tradition and support and would prefer to follow the letter and the spirit of the laws) in a "compliance consortium", the outlaw programs could find their hands forced. Look at the list of suggested rules above. If a group of programs agreed to voluntarily comply with these rules on reporting and monitoring, and also schedule games against each other, sunlight would be forced on the unethical practices of other schools that rejected these rules. The lazy sports media would be forced to connect the dots about the same guy always being connected to recruits with odd camp visit schedules, and write about it.
Imagine how the same media would view this college football star chamber. The non-conference games would be very high-profile. The media would be given a great counterexample for any ongoing scandals. The schools in this self-selected group would be free to raise their ethical standards without having to go it alone. If one school plays it straight in a rule-breaking environment, it’s a sucker. If several of the highest profile schools decide to obey the rules, they are standard-setters. Lower profile programs would want to join the alliance- schools like Virginia and California. There would be pressure on the NCAA to adopt the standards of this consortium. It would force the process of cleaning up the sport again, without killing the weaker programs.
Yes, this is an "out of the box" suggestion. I think it would work, though, and it’s certainly better than any other proposed ideas. Make no mistake- this is going to get worse before it gets better. The current tough economic times make cheating more likely, not less, since winning more games leads to higher revenues. If something isn’t done, we are setting up very nicely for a replay of the ’80s in college football, and we all remember how fun that was.