Ball's in their court

The Baltimore Sun

If David Stern and Myles Brand had wanted a clearer illustration of what's wrong with the culture of youth sports in this country, they couldn't have asked for better examples than Billy Gillispie and Michael Avery.

NCAA president Brand and NBA commissioner Stern have bemoaned the state of youth athletics - or, shall we say, basketball - in recent years. Well, here come Kentucky basketball coach Gillispie and Avery, a 14-year-old California boy whom Gillispie offered a scholarship to before Avery even set foot on a high school campus.

Stern and Brand, the two most powerful figures in American basketball, have something tangible to aim their laser pointer at, as an example of why sports for the under-18 crowd is sorely in need of fixing.

Simply put, Gillispie's offer of a full ride to Avery, an eighth-grader from Lake Sherwood, Calif., merely on the basis of having seen the 6-foot-4 guard play with a travel team at an Ohio tournament, speaks volumes about the mishmash that youth sports are these days.

Keep in mind, Avery, who accepted the scholarship offer, hasn't even decided which high school he's going to attend, yet he has an invitation to play for one of the hallowed programs in all of college sports, albeit more than three years before he can legally accept it.

This whole issue is just one more step down the road to an Armageddon, where parents do whatever it takes to get their kids a full ride to college and/or seen by professional talent evaluators and where greedy coaches exploit parents and kids to move up the ladder.

Of course, Gillispie, who slogged through a rough first season in Lexington, where nothing short of winning the national title is a poor year, isn't the only college basketball coach to wander into the morass of extending scholarship offers to pre-high school athletes. Speculation has it that Gillispie was only trying to beat Southern California coach Tim Floyd to the punch, as Floyd has offered and accepted commitments to kids before they enter high school.

But the fact that Floyd has dived headfirst into the primordial ooze of AAU and club ball to bring in kids who have no more interest in getting college degrees than they do in going to the moon, doesn't mean that anyone else, namely the coach at a proud school such as Kentucky, has to dive in with him. It all makes you wonder at what switch the athletic directors at Kentucky and USC are asleep.

Likewise, what parent who claims to truly care about their child seriously lets them make perhaps the most important decision of their lives, this side of choosing a life partner, before they have gone to the prom, received a driver's license, or, in Avery's case, started shaving?

I fully recognize the naivete of the previous two paragraphs given where youth sports are these days. Parents may tell themselves they are schlepping their kids from practice to practice, from club games to travel-team games because the kids love to play. That's probably true in many cases.

But if most parents are truly honest with themselves, they'd admit that there is an ulterior motive in play, namely that no one wants to foot a $100,000 bill for college when someone else will pick up the tab. It's the same reason that children with a musical gift get toted to band practice, or that kids with a knack for art develop that skill. It's the obligation parents have for their children, to give them the best life possible.

The thing to ask, though, is: At what cost? Where does a parent's responsibility to their kids cross the line into perverting the process for children to come?

Brand and Stern don't get to walk away from this blameless, either. Their concept of academies to assist young basketball players in getting better serves only a narrow purpose of raising the hoop skill level of American youth, which, of course, makes college basketball, and in turn the NBA, better.

Meanwhile, the sickness only gets worse. Stern has done some of his part by raising the draft eligibility age from 18 to 19. Now, it's time for Brand to do his duty, by getting his membership to insist that college coaches can make no contact - written, phone calls, anything - with a potential recruit until after their sophomore year of high school, and offer no scholarships until the second semester of their junior year.

Furthermore, Brand should require that that first contact must come through the kid's high school coach, so there is at least the veneer of educational involvement in the process, or else, why are we calling them student-athletes? To do otherwise is to ensure that the strange case of Michael Avery won't be the last.

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