Last September, the FBI brought charges against Division I men’s basketball assistant coaches and apparel company executives, exposing the challenges regulators face in fostering a level playing field in high-stakes recruiting.
Jeremy McCool, the NCAA director of enforcement for basketball development, and his staff of six are tasked with monitoring that playing field and rooting out bad actors who try to tilt it in their favor. In the wake of the FBI’s findings and subsequent recommendations from the Commission on College Basketball, McCool and his staff will be at the forefront of attempts to change the culture in youth basketball, which remains a vital part of the college game.
McCool, who has been in his current position for four years after spending seven in the NCAA Eligibility Center, sat down with Champion magazine to discuss what’s in store for youth basketball and what’s at stake.
JEREMY McCOOL: From an external perspective, the event operators and apparel companies are groups we will talk with. We can engage those individuals in a way that isn’t typical or traditional to the NCAA legislative or governance process. Event operators and apparel companies aren’t part of the membership, but they have an interest in the direction that we go. We are trying to make sure we are aware of the concerns that those external folks have. The commission charged us with a task, and we must take a variety of interests into consideration.
JM:Some of the event operators are cautiously optimistic about how this will impact them. Others are just the opposite and think that the sky is falling. It remains to be seen how they are ultimately impacted. There are also some who will adapt their approach to whatever the NCAA recruiting calendar will be, what the legislation requires and what the certification process requires. There have been a variety of times in the past 15-20 years when event operators have had to adjust to NCAA rules. This might be a little different how this impacts them, but that remains to be seen.
The apparel companies are unique because they are also event operators. With that being the case, they look at things from a different angle. Our basketball development staff has relationships with the grassroots aspect of three apparel companies: Nike, Under Armour and Adidas.
JM: or the past four years, our ability to get to know people who operate in the nonscholastic grassroots area and the three shoe companies has been solid. We have two liaisons from our staff assigned to Adidas, two to Under Armour and two to Nike. We get to know who the prospects are from year to year, and we typically present at each apparel company’s directors meeting each year. Since the recommendations have been released by the commission, it will be interesting to see how things will work out. Long-term success may depend on how each of the apparel companies maneuver through the process — and how they define value.
JM: There has been a change in the atmosphere. When you sit down and talk to people, it is eventually a topic of interest for everybody. I can’t say definitively that it has changed behavior. From a job perspective, we are not hearing any more or any less since the FBI announcement. People are still waiting to see what the legal ramifications are and how it truly impacts the people who are caught up in this. Maybe that will be the time when we can definitively see conduct changes. All the apparel companies operate a little differently from one another. They are all looking for the next marketable talent. I don’t think much has changed in their priorities. They are still looking for the next faces of their product lines. Puma getting involved is interesting. They haven’t historically been involved in domestic basketball. Right now, they are signing NBA players to contracts.
JM: The first week or first four days of the 2019 July live period will be status quo and event operators seeking certification will be able to conduct events. Also in July there will be newly created NCAA development camps.
JM: That is a work in progress. There is an internal implementation group that is charged with trying to identify what the standards should be for the registration process. The commission recommended requiring event operators to be more financially transparent. That’s where the more stringent requirements will come in.
JM: Yes. It is my understanding that some sort of audit process will be implemented.
JM: The major changes are the two weekends in June for scholastic events. Those have not existed traditionally. These events may be done in a tournament format. It will be similar to the April events where there is a live period where coaches can engage in evaluations. Depending on the year, the events in April can be one or two weekends. The main difference for these scholastic weekends is they will be operated by state athletics associations. Some national office staff have been working with the National Federation of State High School Associations and the National High School Basketball Coaches Association. There is a collaborative attempt to get their members involved with creating and approving the scholastic events in their states. How each state goes about this is to be determined.
JM: That would be a determination by that state’s high school athletics association. I would think geography will play a lot into this. For instance, in a place like Delaware, they may not have enough teams that coaches may want to come and observe. Maybe in a state that small, they could send teams to an event in Philadelphia or in New Jersey since those areas are in close proximity. The process will be formalized over time.
There are target dates for the different aspects of the recommendations. For instance, for certified events, we probably want those ready by January. The event operators need to get that process started. There will be different benchmarks for everything. The June scholastic events are an ongoing process. I’m sure each state will see what they can do. I’m sure some states may not be able to accommodate by next year. Some states may want to collaborate with other states.
JM: One of the bigger changes is the collaborative efforts between the NCAA, USA Basketball, NBA and the National Basketball Players Association for the July event periods. I have been involved with some promising interactions on that front. USA Basketball is holding a Junior National Team minicamp in October in Colorado Springs. Historically, it invites 50 to 55 prospective student-athletes, but this year it invited 88 along with their parents. The NCAA national office will be well represented at this event, too. It will take place Oct. 5-8, and ninth through 12th grade prospects will be represented.
JM: USA Basketball identifies them. It will be at the USA Basketball training facility in Colorado Springs. This is brand new and has high potential to improve insight across the board. The prospects will have more awareness of what NCAA initial-eligibility expectations are. USA Basketball has an agenda to incorporate different types of messages. Some of the prospects will be able to register for the Eligibility Center while they are on site with their parents.
We can talk to them about potential pitfalls they can avoid. The same goes for amateurism and enforcement purposes. USA Basketball will have progressive responsibilities for them to maintain their status within the national team — that can go from ninth grade all the way to the Olympics. For USA Basketball, it might not be new, but the involvement with the NCAA and whatever roles the NBA and National Basketball Players Association play will be. This form of collaboration has never happened before.
JM: There has been a lot of effort to get everyone on the same page and identify our common interest. This camp will provide education, guidance, and access to training and nutrition. We are finding common ground. The goal is to craft some programming that helps the parents and kids make more informed decisions. We will talk about agents and any potential third party they may come into contact with. It is about keeping them out of harm’s way.
JM: There is no silver bullet. We are never going to get to a point where there are zero violations being committed. Philosophically, we operate on an 80-10-10 belief. About 80 percent of the people who influence where a young person chooses to go to school and play basketball follow the rules. They are genuinely concerned about helping the kid get better opportunities to maximize their talent. They have the best interests of the kid in mind. Then 10 percent, and this may be a little high or a little low, are wired differently. They are always looking for an edge and always trying to find a way around the rules. They don’t believe the rules apply to them. This mentality isn’t good for the game regardless of what their rationalization is. They wake up every day to disadvantage someone else to get what they want. The other 10 percent fluctuate between that 80 and the other 10.
What we try to do is be as much of a resource advocate and hold people accountable. We want to make sure that we are subject matter experts to gain trust and be credible where we can pull that last 10 percent over to the 80 percent. If we get 90 percent to expose the other 10 percent and hold them accountable, it will be beneficial and protect the game. If we do that, we are doing our job. The environment is never going to be completely pure and free of bad actors. Unfortunately, there is a lot attention placed on people who break the rules.
JM: It is difficult but not impossible to deal with. There are challenges that are hard to navigate at times. The best tool we have is the trust and strength of relationships we can develop with the folks who we feel are being negatively impacted. That changes with each situation. It could be a parent, a coach, a high school coach, a junior college coach, an agent, a trainer or someone who may have been involved in a violation or an impermissible activity on the front end and has been removed from that process and is willing to point us in the right direction. They can give us information and help us hold someone accountable for breaking the rules. It is challenging when you are in any form of regulation.
JM: It absolutely helps. Every NCAA student-athlete has to qualify academically to get into a school. They have to meet the amateurism requirements. So, to be familiar with the scholastic environments that are by design trying to circumvent NCAA legislation, whether it’s by not providing college preparatory courses or proclaiming that they do, or submitting a fraudulent test score, you can create unnecessary hurdles for kids as they try to enter college. People put time and effort to figure out methods to get around the rules. I’ve seen the harmful activity in the pre-enrollment space. Now my role is to work toward a more level playing field once they are student-athletes on campus.