The horse has long been out of the barn when it comes to AAU basketball -- where guilt is often by association -- and the effect its sponsors, coaches, and sometimes unsavory advisers and street agents have in the behind-the-scenes world of big-time college recruiting. The NCAA could not sufficiently regulate it at this point if it tried.
The governing body of college sports is trying to get a grip on something called 7-on-7 football, or "7-on," before it spreads similar tentacles over college athletics.
The 7-on-7 craze started during on-campus summer camps and, to that extent, it is fine and dandy. It's basically flag football, no pads, no linemen, seven skill-position players on both sides of the ball.
"We'll have 20 teams one week, 22 teams another that are sponsored by the high schools and coming to our camps in part for 7-on-7 activities," said Toledo head coach Tim Beckman. "It's a great recruiting tool for us to see those kids competing on our campus. Plus, high schools in Ohio don't have spring football, so this gives them an opportunity to get some kids together to drill and compete in an approved setting."
Like we said, that's fine and dandy. But branching off from those approved, on-campus activities are private leagues and tournaments, backed by sponsorship money, complete with personal trainers and skill coaches and sponsors who develop close relationships with high school players in settings and at times college coaches are prohibited from precipitating contact.
What's the problem? Many of those 7-on-7 sponsors are setting themselves up as third-party recruiting services that offer entrees to college coaches. They are unregulated talent brokers -- street agents to use the shady, popular phrase -- that operate without a rule book. They are basically seeking a "service fee" to give schools access to the athletes in their off-season programs.
Notable is a case at the University of Oregon, where the football staff reportedly paid $25,000 to a 7-on-7 agent/recruiting guru from Texas for what amounted to an introduction. How can someone accept that kind of money and not deliver the player? As shadowy as the process may be, the NCAA's rules about its legality are equally murky.
The NCAA is investigating whether street agents are "guiding" athletes to certain schools that pay for their so-called recruiting service. They also want to learn if prep athletes are receiving goods, services, or even money that would jeopardize their amateur status.
NCAA coaches are prohibited from attending off-campus 7-on-7 tournaments, but there's no rule that prevents those schools with the resources from buying the recruiting service.
"I think the NCAA is trying to define what a legitimate recruiting service is and set a threshold for what it can provide," said Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson. "A recruiting service can have unlimited access not bound by the same [NCAA] rules that coaches are and they can become very involved with a prospect. If the people running those things are steering players to certain institutions, the NCAA certainly doesn't want that.
"That said, there are recruiting services that are very, very legitimate. They provide us with all kinds of information (height, weight, grade point average, 40 times, game video, coaching contacts, etc.), sort of one-stop shopping. They are valuable as we evaluate prospects, and we do subscribe to some of those. The others, they're basically agents. And that's the problem the NCAA is trying to deal with."
Let us hope the NCAA deals with it authoritatively before football is saddled with its own version of AAU basketball, where often high school coaches and administrators -- who don't put a price on athletes' heads -- become secondary during the recruiting process.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.