Scouting Services or Boosters: Oregon’s Gray Area
Yahoo Sports reported last night that the University of Oregon is under NCAA investigation for their payments of $28,000 to two “scouting services” with connections to recruits.
According to public invoices (see here and here) obtained by Yahoo! Sports, Oregon paid more than $28,000 to two men with personal ties to current Ducks for “recruiting services” – specifically, video of potential prospects. Recruiting services are common and legal (see below), but if either of the recipients in this case is determined to have had a role in a prospects’ recruitment, he could be classified as a booster and bring significant heat from the NCAA.
As one might expect, this has not gone unnoticed and virtually every major college football blog is talking about that report this morning1. The short-form headlines are much more damning — typically insinuating that Oregon was paying for recruits — than the current state of the facts, but it’s not as simple as it might initially appear.
The meat of the issue lies in capitalism. In order for recruits to have their highlights seen by the largest number of college programs, specialized businesses were formed to promote players to the Universities. These sorts of services range from simple video formatting and mail distribution to phone calls to the recruiters for the various schools. It makes sense: this is a path that the students have likely not traveled before, and having a sherpa to guide them through the treacherous passes that abound — and to help them sort fact from marketing — is a valuable service well worth a family’s hard-earned money.
Similarly, prep recruiting services specialize in evaluating and reporting on high school athletes. They achieve a breadth of coverage that the University’s themselves cannot due to a mixture of time, money, and NCAA recruiting rules. It also turns out that ravenous college football fans are consuming more and more recruiting news to sate their hunger in the off-season, making it a doubly-lucrative business venture.
It doesn’t take Warren Buffet to find out what comes next: since these two businesses each serve different ends of the same information channel, and both ends of that channel are willing to open their checkbooks, it stands to reason that one could potentially increase profit by serving both client-bases. If you assume that the interests of the schools and recruits are not in conflict, that everyone plays fair, and that the businesses can adequately fulfill both sets of duties, there really shouldn’t be a problem with any of this.
The operative word there is “shouldn’t”.
In reality, not all of these “services” are equal, and with so little oversight of this specific piece of the process, there’s a huge margin for unfair dealing. For less-desired recruits, this might not be such a big issue, but all it takes to see how this arrangement can create perverse motives is to imagine the #1 recruit in the country signing up with one of these scouting services. Will the recruiting service be able to eliminate its bias if some of the recruit’s suitors are his clients and some are not? Even if it can, can anything be done to eliminate the opportunity for, or appearance of, impropriety here?
From what little we know about the specific case in question, there’s not enough to start counting up Oregon’s sanctions. Hell, the university’s own take on it is: “Yeah, we did that, so what?” In fact, this could be less about Oregon specifically and more a case of the NCAA starting to wade into this morass in an effort to prevent NCAA Football recruiting from turning into shadiness that is NCAA Basketball recruiting.
If it turns out that the services Oregon paid steered the recruits toward the Ducks, they could be in a whole heap of trouble, but until there’s more evidence that that is the case, I’m more inclined to believe that this is an attempt by the NCAA to survey the landscape of CFB recruiting in advance of legislative proposals or other administrative action.