As the father of a promising football prospect, Reginald Riley has no qualms about meddling in his son's affairs.
He believes his son, Donovan, a Poly defensive back, has sweated his way through too many workouts on muggy afternoons to risk having his football career derailed by accepting any freebie — "even a Gatorade bottle," he says — that could arouse NCAA suspicions.
So when the elder Riley heard there might be issues with 7-on-7 nonscholastic football teams, he picked up the phone earlier this year and checked with the NCAA before allowing his son to continue to participate with a 7-on-7 travel team. "I started hearing a lot of buzz going around and I wanted to hear for myself," said Riley, an assistant school administrator. "You don't want to have kids hurt by those who have an ulterior motive."
Riley was not the only one concerned. The rise of 7-on-7 traveling all-star teams has created a ripple of anxiety among area high school coaches, college coaches and parents who fear that top players are being increasingly exposed to third parties who are not under the NCAA's purview and may be seeking influence in the college recruiting process.
Maryland coach Randy Edsall is pushing for changes in state rules to allow high school coaches more contact with their players over the summer — partly to keep the players away from outsiders.
"What is happening in the sport of football right now is we're going to end up being like AAU basketball," Edsall said. "I really fear that our high school coaches in every sport are losing the kind of control that I think is needed. When you're putting other people — a third party — in there, the third party is starting to become more important than the person who is dealing with them on a daily basis. We need to make sure the high school coach is the most important person."
Edsall has communicated his concerns to the state organization overseeing public school athletics, which has no current plans to change the rules.
Edsall's concerns are shared by Roger Wrenn, Riley's coach at Poly. When Wrenn learned that Riley and two Poly teammates intended to play for a 7-on-7 travel team, he talked with the players.
"I've expressed my concerns to them and their parents, trying to caution them," Wrenn said. "I said, 'Don't take things that aren't offered to everybody. If it sounds too good to be true, then it is.'"
Donovan Riley, who has committed to Virginia Tech, said he'd already heard the same cautionary message from his protective father. Wrenn "was preaching to the choir," said the younger Riley, who played on Team Dream, a 7-on-7 travel team overseen by Calvert Hall assistant coach Cory Robinson
Robinson is co-founder with fellow Cardinal Gibbons graduate Devin Redd of Next Level Nation, a nonprofit organization. The pair is involved in 7-on-7, combines and other football activities to develop high school talent. Robinson said it's unfair to refer to him as a "third party."
"I'm good enough to be a high school coach, but I'm not safe enough or good enough [in 7-on-7]?" Robinson said. "Our job is to instruct and change lives. Am I off the clock the moment I step off the field at Calvert Hall?"
Robinson recently appeared on an ESPN segment in which travel team members were shown in a photograph posing for the camera aboard a yacht.
"It wasn't a yacht, it was a boat," Robinson told The Sun. "I guess people want us to go somewhere and sleep in a tent or something."
Robinson said funding for his players' trips comes from a variety of sources. "We get out and do car washes, stuff like that," he said.
He said many of the donors are parents paying for their sons' travel and hotels. Some donors, he said, "want to be anonymous and not out in the public."
In June, the Southeastern Conference banned nonscholastic, 7-on-7 tournaments from its member-school campuses, effective Aug. 1.
The Atlantic Coast Conference has not yet taken a position. "It's a little early to tell exactly how folks would react to it, but obviously it's an issue that I'm sure they'd look into based into similar things that have come about with other sports," said ACC associate commissionerMichael Kelly.
The NCAA has been monitoring the rise of 7-on-7, and Robinson said he met with an NCAA representative earlier this year. He said the NCAA was merely being "proactive" and that "there is no NCAA investigation of any kind of Next Level Nation." The NCAA had no comment, spokesman Erik Christianson said.
Donovan Riley said traveling on Robinson's team "allowed me to showcase my talent against other players in the area and in the country." Among his 7-on-7 teammates was Dunbar receiver DeonTay McManus, a Baltimore Sun first-team All-Metro selection at safety.
Despite playing on the traveling all-star team, Riley said his "No. 1 commitment" is to Wrenn and Poly.
While Wrenn permitted his players to participate with a travel team, at least one Maryland powerhouse — DeMatha — does not.
"Our kids will only play for DeMatha," coach Elijah Brooks said. "It's not AAU basketball or anything like that. You only play for the school."
Brooks said there was too much risk of injuries and that "we don't really want a lot of outsiders influencing our guys."
Wrenn was interviewed on a warm, sunny day at M&T Bank Stadium, where Riley and a group of his Poly teammates competed against other area high schools in a 7-on-7 tournament hosted by the Ravens and Under Armour. The players wore shorts and T-shirts without helmets or pads — the game is played without linemen. The applause of a small crowd was drowned out by rock music blaring from speakers.
Wrenn said he has no issues with tournaments such as the one at the stadium, largely because high school coaches were present. Edsall or other college coaches could not attend because it was not a scholastic event.
"Street agent people have no compunction about breaking the rules. But we high school coaches are, I hope, a level above," said Wrenn, who believes state rules need adjusting "so that we can coach kids in the offseason."
But Ned Sparks, executive director of Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, said there would be procedural hurdles to overcome to enact the reforms Wrenn seeks.
Teams aren't currently permitted to hold offseason practices. Players may meet with their coach or lift weights together, but can't engage in organized football activities as a team. Team members are allowed to play together on 7-on-7 teams that don't employ school uniforms or equipment.
Sparks said easing the rules would require approval of the MPSSAA, school superintendents and the state Board of Education. He said offseason practices would pose complications.
"How much could they practice? You have to have some limitations," Sparks said. "If football is practicing year round, what about the kid who wants to play baseball as a football player? Sometimes you have to protect people from themselves."