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When the NCAA membership enacted Proposal 2009-22 last year, the reactions to the proposal sounded like responses to a new advertising initiative. The move was seen as the NCAA opening new markets for international recruiting particularly European basketball prospects.
That opinion misses the mark on two small fronts and one big front. First, international prospects generally and European basketball prospects specifically had been enrolling and competing for Division I institutions for years. The proposal just allows a broader range of prospective student-athletes to compete in Division I without penalty. Second, solving some of the issues 2009-22 addresses could have been accomplished with a smaller legislative change or changes by the Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement to the guidelines for reinstating these prospects.
The bigger error is that Proposal 2009-22 did not start international recruiting, rather it exists because of the growing success of international recruiting. If NCAA institutions were not successfully recruiting international prospects, clubs would not have begun moving athletes around different levels of the organization (i.e. youth players up to the professional team or professional players down to the youth team) for the purpose of jeopardizing the eligibility of their youth players.
While the idea of teams moving athletes around to keep them out of college seems like something that could never happen in the United States, it was relatively close to happening in at least one sport.
In 2007, the United States Soccer Federation launched the Development Academy system. Designed to combat a lack of skill development and training in the existing structure of club soccer, the USSF created a system where elite young athletes get more practice and repetitions, along with fewer games against higher quality opposition.
The MLS bought into the idea wholesale, requiring teams to field youth teams. Every American franchise now fields teams in the Academy, while Toronto FC fields teams in the Canadian Soccer League. The youth teams are generally free or have minimal fees, and employ full-time coaches.
The movement began to reach its logical conclusion this summer when Real Salt Lake launched the first residential academy in Casa Grande, AZ. Ultimately housing 80 players, RSL’s academy is akin to youth teams around the world where young players live, train, and sometimes attend class while training to see if they can break into the senior professional team. And Proposal 2009-22 helped make this possible:
Prior to RSL’s landmark academy, IMG has run a residential program in Bradenton, Florida, which supports the U-17 U.S. National Team, but until this summer NCAA regulations restricted young athletes from most interactions with the professional game. With those recent changes allowing young players to compete and train with professionals without losing amateur status, MLS clubs are able to more closely develop U.S. players according to worldwide standards while still preparing them for the college.
The MLS watched the NCAA’s deregulation of competition with professional teams carefully, and it was not until this summer that the MLS allowed athletes to move between the Academy and senior teams. Still, it’s hard to imagine that the MLS would have held off creating a youth development structure simply because it did not fit with the NCAA’s regulations. Had Proposal 2009-22 not passed, there eventually would have been a competition for top prospects between the systems that would develop them for college (high school, club, and non-MLS Academy teams) and the MLS Academies, which would develop them for professional athletics and potentially jeopardize their eligibility.
One question now could be how the effects of 2009-22 and the rise of youth teams attached to professional clubs in the United States could help other areas. Is there a place for USA Basketball and the NBA to work together to create a more controlled, top-down development system as an alternative to the bottom-up structure of grassroots basketball? There would be a number of issues, such as how to reward clubs for developing players, how the clubs interact with the NBA’s age limit, where a USA Basketball/NBA developmental league might fit in the men’s basketball recruiting calendar, not to mention who pays for all this. But none of these are insurmountable problems.
Proposal 2009-22 was intended to solve international problems. But it solved at least one impending domestic issue that threatened to kill off a collegiate sport. And it provides new tools the NCAA, national governing bodies, professional sports leagues, and existing youth development programs can use to work together to solve issues in the current recruiting and development environment. That could be where 2009-22 makes the greatest impact.