Sports-industrial complex

February 09, 2003

AT A RECENT kids' basketball tournament in Arbutus, the coach of a select all-star team approached a talented fifth-grader, barely 4 feet tall, buying her a soda and candy bar as an entree to his recruiting pitch.

It's a long way from such increasingly common incidents to the more than $300 that a University of Maryland football coach slipped a blue-chip Gilman recruit - let alone to the NBA-bound Ohio high school basketball phenom, LeBron James, and his $50,000 Hummer.

But they're connected in an ugly process in which promising kids become commodities for a sports-industrial complex extending down from the pros, to big-time college and high school programs, to the growing numbers of select club teams that begin at least by middle school. For the most talented, it's too often a shameless process in which the joys and benefits of sports are overtaken by the less-pure aspirations of parents, coaches and profiteers.

And it's rife with hypocrisies: Mr. James, his technical amateurism now questioned because of the receipt of two jerseys, didn't become a household name without the assent of his Akron high school, which has made more than $1 million from ESPN telecasts of his games.

As a recruiting violation, the UM cash payment was small potatoes in a world in which top schools have private jets for flying in promising 17-year-olds on NCAA-sanctioned visits. Of course, such visits include female escorts, wining and dining and whatever else the schools can get away with under NCAA rules.

To understand these rules, get a lawyer. They're essentially trade association by-laws - aimed not at protecting kids but at maintaining a level playing field among dog-eat-dog competitors.

Lost in the hubbub over the $300 given to the Gilman senior was the violation of his parents' rights: The money was given to buy him a video game system that his parents had expressly denied him.

Instead, the more pressing concerns were that Maryland lost a top-flight player and that the incident might result in NCAA sanctions. What a relief to all that that doesn't appear to be the outcome here. What a lot of hypocrisy.

This problem now is much broader than just the colleges. But if the NCAA's Division I schools don't lead the way in restoring sanity, then they might as well begin thinking about how to scrap the pretense of amateurism, acknowledge they're minor-league farm teams for the NFL and NBA, and pay their recruits accordingly. At the very least it would be more honest.

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