July 19, 2006
It seems like every year, an ethical quagmire springs up in the hellish and cutthroat world of college basketball recruiting. Over the past year, it's been questions about the role of text messaging in contacting recruits. This summer, however, the primary question has shifted to the meaning of an early verbal commitment. It's happened before that a recruit has reneged, and it's a more frequent phenomenon in football, but this summer, with the verbals of two elite players appearing weak or meaningless, it is indeed a good time to address the precise meaning of a verbal commitment.
First, there is the case of O.J. Mayo, a 6-4 guard from Cincinnati who, by consensus, is the best basketball player of the class of 2007. After a visit to USC, Mayo apparently informed their coaching staff that he felt the school was best for him (big city, NBA-connected coach, etc.) and told them that he would make an announcement pertaining to his commitment. Then, when asked about it, he said that even though he committed, he still was looking at some other schools, such as Kansas State. This still neglects the fact that Mayo may bypass college altogether by going to Europe or signing with a shoe company and taking a year off. In response to all this, Mayo proved that he at least has the quotability of a big-time athlete by noting that "a verbal is just a verbal."
Then we have the case of Eric Gordon, an elite guard from Indianapolis. Back in November, Gordon held a press conference and made a solid verbal commitment to play for Bruce Weber at Illinois. In the meantime, Indiana fired anemic coach Mike Davis and hired Kelvin Sampson. Sampson, in turn, hired Jeff Meyer, a well-connected Midwestern coach who coached Eric Gordon Sr. at Liberty University. Couple this fact with Sampson's vociferous desire to make keeping Indiana talent in Indiana and all of a sudden, trying to lure Gordon to Bloomington became an established goal for the Indiana coaches and fans alike. Sampson and his coaches began calling and - whether out of courtesy or genuine interest - the Gordons started listening. Indiana's die-hard followers started a campaign pleading for him to stay in-state and help lead their program back to glory.
Then, Gordon made some ambiguous comments at the Adidas camp about giving Indiana and Notre Dame a fair look. His father was quoted as saying they wanted to see what Sampson "was doing differently than Mike Davis," and Chicagohoops.com ran an article saying that Gordon had officially reopened his commitment. Several big-time coaches called the Gordons, Indiana fans becmae elated, and Illinois fans became irrate. Less than a week later, the article was found to be a total fabrication, and Eric Gordon himself was posting on the Illinois message board welcoming another Illini recruit, adding that "nothing has changed." We won't know for sure until the national signing period opens up; but for all the hubbub and all the "insiders" who bet their lives that he was going to Indiana, he still looks like a solid Illinois commitment.
For any rational person - that is, someone not engrossed in the world of college basketball recruiting - there appear to be several problems with this situation. First, there is the issue of overzealous boosters, fans, and media pundits publishing things that have no basis in truth. While it's commonly acknowledged by sane people that the Internet is a spurious place for truth, the college basketball community feasts on any nugget it can get from remote message boards and "insider" web sites looking for hits without regard for credibility. Perhaps the most obvious problem is the fact that so much time and energy are wasted on pyschoanalyzing teenagers. Flabby grown men should ideally have better things to do than spending their intellectual energy giving an elaborate exegesis of every word coming from a 17-year-old's mouth, especially one who is continually hounded with questions. That, I can safely say, is bonkers. Thus, the first people I'd like to shame are the "journalists," gurus, and fans whose engines run on baseless speculation, for they perpetuate this ethically-vacuous environment.
The second group of people I'd like to direct shame at are Kelvin Sampson and any other college basketball coach who decides to recruit a kid who is commited elsewhere. While Sampson is technically breaking no NCAA rules in his active recruitment of Gordon, he's swimming in ethically-murky waters. The Indiana coach, who is already maligned for rules infractions, ironically was head of the NABC's ethics committee not too long ago, but apparently that means nothing to him now. Kids who are verbally committed somewhere should be off-limits. Let us not confuse legal behavior with moral behavior. Other college coaches such as Tom Izzo of Michigan State and Jerry Wainwright of Depaul have declared that Sampson's behavior goes against their community's tacit ethical code. Weber, too, has of course implied that there is something shifty going on with Sampson. I point all this out not only as an Illinois fan who suddenly has a greater distaste for Indiana and their fans who want to rationalize unethical behavior, but also as someone who wants the verbal commitment in college basketball to mean something, for the sake of the game and the NCAA.
When a kid makes a verbal commitment to a school, it is an oral agreement between the player and the school that the player ceases looking at other schools and the school adjusts its recruiting around that player. This is genuinely in the best interests of both parties if a verbal commitment can be upheld on both sides. At that point, other coaches should cease recruiting the said player out of courtesy. This is traditionally how the system has worked, and it's worked fairly well over the years.
For those of you who hold the Mike DeCourcy/O.J. Mayo view that a verbal commitment means little in reality, there's probably little I can do to convince you that it's a good thing to have a code of accepted ethics and, like Izzo and Wainwright, to call out violators. The word "commitment" by definition implies pledging and binding. A loose analogy here might be promising to marry someone; would you really want other parties going after your fiance?
You don't commit to such a thing until you're beyond-all-doubts certain, and unless you're doing it for the right reasons - and you rescind the commitment if you want to look elsewhere. Ultimately it shouldn't matter whether a promise is legally bound or oral. Perhaps I'm yearning too much for an ideal that just doesn't mesh with reality; but if you can't understand the concept of commitment, there probably isn't much hope for you in the long run, anyway.
The grand point here is that Mayo and Gordon never should have verbally commited in the first place because they were not 100% positive, or they commited for the wrong reasons (Gordon's father told a newspaper that he was tired of the phone calls). Perhaps the NCAA needs to do away with verbals and move to a system similar to the "early decision" option for college undergraduate applicants (where you're contracturally bound to attend for a given length of time if you signal that a school is your first choice). The bottom line however is that the NCAA needs to step in and do something. Verbal commitments either need to mean something like they always have or they should go away, because having them be ambiguous only fuels the fire of rabid "experts" and creates a bad situation for both colleges and players. As it is now, there is greater bitterness between Indiana and Illinois simply because of the "insider"-fueled Gordon fiasco, and it could have been entirely prevented.
It's rare for me to call on the NCAA to do anything, but this type of situation calls for immediate action on the league's behalf. I don't exactly know how, but this is a mess that could potentially become worse in future cases. Until then, all we can do is laud coaches like Izzo, scorn ones like Sampson, and try to convince those whose heartbeat hinges on every fragment of news in the college basketball recruiting world to take it easy.