August 25, 2004

Accessing a Better Culture

Aug. 16, 2004

By Gary T. Brown
The NCAA News

Women's basketball coaches have put themselves in the game. Answering a call from NCAA President Myles Brand to take their best shot at changing the recruiting environment, the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) has developed a comprehensive package that is making its way through the Division I legislative cycle this year. Brand challenged both the WBCA and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) in March to draw up a play, and both organizations answered with multi-faceted packages. The NABC package has attracted more media attention so far, primarily because of a proposal that provides for a fifth year of eligibility, but WBCA coaches maintain their package is just as important to the future of their game. Brand applauded the WBCA's initiative. "The proposals will need to go through the normal legislative process, including a thorough review by the membership and the governance structure, and there will undoubtedly be some changes," he said. "But the main point is that coaches are not just complaining about the current rules; they are making constructive recommendations to improve them." The men's and women's packages are similar in that they focus on the recruiting process and advocate for a closer relationship between coaches and student-athletes -- from the time the student-athlete signs a National Letter of Intent to the time he or she receives a college diploma. But the details vary. A primary thrust of the WBCA plan is to provide recruited student-athletes with the benefits they would be entitled to as a current student-athlete. In other words, instead of recruited student-athletes being part of a "virtual roster" from the time they sign to the time the playing and practice season begins, they should be considered a real part of the team. For example, the proposals allow the signed prospect to receive medical expenses, work at the institution's summer camp and participate in the team's foreign tour during the summer. The recruit also would receive three complimentary tickets to home and away-from-home games. In addition, a student-athlete would be allowed to play in an exhibition game without sacrificing a year of eligibility. "Coaches want to treat the prospect like a current student-athlete," said WBCA Chief Executive Officer Beth Bass. "Instead of putting them on a virtual roster, put them on your roster. Let them have the same benefits. Let them participate in foreign tours, be in camps, work out with coaches during summer school -- let student-athletes play in an exhibition game but still be able to red-shirt." Reduce the bureaucracy
In its report, the WBCA says such proposals would foster student-athlete well-being "through the development of a better-rounded individual who is ready to make a positive contribution to society upon graduation." WBCA coaches believe greater access will allow them to develop their student-athletes as "total individuals" through a more structured environment that spans the student-athlete's entire collegiate process. "The package is designed to make everything simpler, reduce the bureaucracy," said Shannon Reynolds, the WBCA's senior director of events and external affairs. "Make the culture make sense. The student-athletes come to your school but they're not really part of the team yet because of the rules. Her high-school eligibility is exhausted, she's virtually part of your team, but she can't start practicing, she can't come to camps or participate in a foreign tour. That's hard to justify. This package tries to make sense of it all and find balance." That balance was the charge of a 19-coach committee chaired by WBCA President Wendy Larry of Old Dominion University that reviewed the current rules and developed a new plan for all aspects of recruiting and access. The committee, which included high-profile coaches Pat Summitt of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Geno Auriemma of the University of Connecticut; Jody Conradt of the University of Texas at Austin; Gail Goestenkors of Duke University; and Andy Landers of the University of Georgia, completed its work in one in-person meeting and several conference calls. The committee included representatives from all competitive levels of Division I, as well as coaches from Divisions II and III institutions. Bass hailed the group's commitment and the fact that members worked as a team to craft a package that sought the good of the game at all levels -- not just the good of "highly visible" programs. "This committee is unprecedented," she said. "The last time we put this much concerted effort into an issue was when we went to the smaller ball (in 1984-85). We made a strong effort to reach out to every segment of our membership in compiling this package ... but you also probably couldn't find a single coach who would agree with every single proposal in it." Access, not control
Despite the diversity of opinion over certain proposals, longtime WBCA administrator Betty Jaynes said she hopes coaches support the overall plan. She noted that the WBCA board of directors already has. "I'd be surprised to see a majority of coaches who would stand up and object to going forward," said the woman who served in the WBCA's top position for 23 years and still serves as a consultant. "Certain coaches don't like certain things, but if you took straw votes I can't think of anything in this package the majority would change." Georgia's Landers said coaches, who are accustomed to squaring off against each other on the court, worked hand in hand to create an improved situation for prospects, student-athletes, coaches, institutions -- and the NCAA. "That is certainly in my mind what should be happening," said the man who's been in the profession for 29 years and has taken his team to five Women's Final Fours. "Each of those entities has been considered carefully in everything we have discussed." When it comes to access, Landers said, the prevailing thought among coaches is that the current limitations on coaches' contact with student-athletes squelch an opportunity for them to extend a positive influence. "With some changes to those restrictions, our relationships with student-athletes and the effects that we can have in their lives, particularly during the off-season, would be greatly enhanced," he said. One issue with access may be the perceived message it sends to people who might construe coaches wanting more contact as coaches wanting to develop players athletically earlier for the sake of improved performance and more wins. But Landers contends that's not the point at all. "I don't know very many coaches who believe that we need a lot more practice or court time," he said. But Landers noted that if practice and court time is the primary common thread of access to student-athletes under the current rules, then giving coaches more would enhance the relationships and the influence they have with student-athletes. "You know, we spend the first five or 10 minutes of every practice during the season talking about academics -- how we did in class and who has a test coming up, who has assignments," Landers said. "Once the season's over, it becomes more difficult to have that kind of interaction with our players. It's against the rules at certain times of the year for me to have a meeting with my players and even talk about basketball. But when I do talk to them about basketball, inevitably we're going to talk about how they're doing in school. "When someone calls you and asks you out for a cup of coffee, you're not just going to sit there and drink coffee -- you're going to talk about work, and about what you're going to do over the weekend. That's what access is all about." Recruiting reforms
The type and frequency of access also plays into the WBCA package under the heading of recruiting reform. One proposal, for example, specifies that a coaching staff member may communicate with a prospect only by telephone, facsimile and e-mail. That prohibits instant-messaging or text-messaging a prospect at any time, whether in the academic year or during the summer. "The committee talked for about three hours on text-messaging and instant-messaging and how intrusive that's becoming," the WBCA's Reynolds said. She said women's basketball coaches typically rely on telephone opportunities with prospects to fortify relationships from the start. Jaynes cited an example of a ride she took with a coach recently who spent a good deal of the trip on her cell phone. "The prospect called the coach and I overheard the conversation as being all about the prospect's academic plan, potential major, the time it would take to graduate," Jaynes said. Landers said the text-messaging restriction is his favorite proposal. "For me to get a text message from a prospect when I know she's in history class concerns me. Or for me to get a text message from a prospect during the three or four minutes she has between classes concerns me. Or to hear that prospects receive those text messages from coaches at two or three in the morning or during school hours bothers me," Landers said. "We have wonderful recruiting avenues. We have the U.S. mail, 800 numbers, telephone calls once a week, e-mail exchanges. Those things are intact. At some point, we as college coaches have to look at it like we do our own mailbox. How much of what we are doing is junk mail? And how much from a prospect's standpoint do they really want to get? And do they feel obligated when a coach text-messages them in the middle of the night to get out of bed and write back?" Landers also said there's the question of accountability. With a telephone call, there's a record, he said, but with other communication methods, there's no way to accurately record who called who when or who messaged who when. "Recruiting can't be a constant invasion on the student-athlete or the student-athlete's family," he said. "With today's technology, you can constantly invade because it's all available." Competitive equity
Also apparent in the WBCA package is a concerted effort among coaches to level the playing field. For example, in the recruiting section of the package, one proposal would prohibit women's basketball scholastic and nonscholastic events, practice and competition from being conducted on the campus of a Division I institution, except for high-school state-qualifying competitions or tournaments. Committee members felt that while there weren't many reported instances of coaches using those events to recruit players, they nonetheless wanted to remove even the temptation for the practice to gain any momentum. Some said it was an example of larger programs looking out for the best interests of the game over potential individual gain. "The charge was to take off the institutional hat and put on the best-interests-of-the-game hat," said WBCA President Larry. "We tried to take all levels of our organization into consideration, and certainly that proposal is an indication of that effort." "Often times, people hosting those events didn't use them to recruit -- they didn't do it to gain an advantage," Landers said. "Most times they were asked by other people if the events could be held there. So it's not as if we have people in the profession who are trying to cut corners or operate in a gray area to gain an advantage. And because of that, I think it was easy for everyone to give those things up. "It speaks volumes as to what our interests in this exercise are. Our interests are not self-serving, they are for everyone to compete at the same level. If that was disadvantageous to some in the room, they understood that and they took the high road." Repair or prevent?
In many ways, the WBCA and the NABC packages end up in the same place when it comes to the coach-player bond and the ethical behavior in recruiting. Larry said some of the proposals come from having paid attention to the environment that has developed over time in the men's game. "Unfortunately, sometimes we learn from the issues that our big brothers have experienced," Larry said. "In some cases we have been able to avoid the pitfalls based on the experiences they have had, or perhaps we have seen the problems coming because of what they've experienced. "Because some of the pieces in the package are designed to address some of the obstacles the men already have seen -- we're taking from their experiences and trying to propose prevention. The pureness of the game is so crucial to us. We want to do whatever we can to keep our game as pure as we can." Landers said it's not so much about prevention as it is about adaptation. "More than to prevent or repair," he said, "we're trying to adapt to the changes that have evolved in the recruiting process. There are an increasing number of events that involve prospects and college coaches. The recruiting landscape has changed a great deal just in the past five years, and our mission is to adapt what we've done in the past and what we're doing now to those ongoing changes." The WBCA's Bass said the package represents the most honest effort she's seen from coaches to do just that. She also noted that the WBCA committee worked with NABC Executive Director Jim Haney and his special committee "almost daily" to recommend meaningful changes. Now that the proposals are in the legislative cycle, Bass and Haney know it's up to the two organizations and their members to educate NCAA constituent groups that this is the culture that will protect both the men's and women's games. "President Brand asked us to dream, change it, make it better," Bass said. "He didn't want something that was tweaked. All these ideas are things that our coaches feel will help them get the student-athlete through four years of eligibility and complete their degree during their playing seasons. "The NCAA has emphasized a student-athlete-first environment. You can see the change in the structure since that's been adopted. President Brand wants things to make sense, he wants to be fair to the student-athlete, and he wants every aspect to be studied and changes to be considered where they make sense." Bass may have summed it up best when she noted that one coach who was unable to attend the committee meeting but wanted to make sure her input was heeded said, "Just tell the committee to cut the insanity out." Coaches in the WBCA believe they have.