By Eric Prisbell and Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Will Barton had finished playing all his basketball games for the day at a summer camp in Long Beach, Calif., when the top 20 prospect in the high school class of 2010 decided to answer questions from two men wearing media credentials.
Barton had seen the men before, liked them, and said he knew they wanted him to play college basketball at North Carolina State. After recalling great moments in Wolfpack history in front of a video camera, media members began shooting baskets; Barton took a basketball from one of the men, Lou Pascucci, and said: "Check up, check up. Roll that camera!" The 6-foot-6 Barton challenged the 5-8 Pascucci to engage in a most unusual activity for an interviewee and a media member, a one-on-one game with high stakes: If Pascucci won, Barton would pledge to go to N.C. State.
The scene illuminates a growing concern in college basketball. NCAA rules explicitly state that fans of teams cannot be involved in recruiting, but those regulations blur when the fan wears a media credential. Such credentials, which are issued by whatever entity is running a particular event, designate the bearers as media members, giving them access to prospects that even college coaches don't have during the all-important summer evaluation period. College coaches are not permitted to interact with prospects during the period.
NCAA officials and prominent figures on the summer basketball circuit are alarmed at an increasing number of fans who are creating Web sites, obtaining media credentials and becoming amateur recruiters. Rachel Newman-Baker, the NCAA's agent, gambling and amateurism director, said one of the organization's biggest concerns this summer was who was obtaining media credentials and for what purpose.
Pascucci and his friend Matthew Bradham, two North Carolina State graduates and fans of the basketball team, posted the video of the one-on-one game (which Barton won quickly) on their six-month-old Web site, http://WolfpackHoops.com. But they took it down after a North Carolina State official recommended they do so. Both said last week they would never play such a game again and would never try to persuade a prospect to go to North Carolina State, and that they felt Barton merely was joking around.
Bradham and Pascucci called it a learning experience, a quick introduction into the highly scrutinized and complex world of college basketball recruiting. They said they have media credentials from North Carolina State to cover the school's football and basketball teams this year and do not want to damage their relationship with the school.
"I don't even want to walk close to the line again," said Pascucci, 25, later comparing the one-on-one game to a bad joke and saying, "If people don't get it, you don't tell the joke again."
But Bradham maintained that supporting and promoting their favorite team is their "number one goal," that he views former Wolfpack players as heroes and that he hopes the best recruits go to North Carolina State.
"We're not recruiters," said Bradham, 25. "We know there is a fine line. But we'd be ignorant to say [recruits] didn't know we were representing N.C. State. When we go up to a player and say, 'Hey, we're from WolfpackHoops dot com,' they get it."
That concerns those charged with the enforcement of NCAA recruiting regulations, and with Web addresses easy and inexpensive to obtain, separating legitimate online journalists from fanatics with URLs can be difficult.
"It really has gotten worse," said Bob Gibbons, a national recruiting analyst for 30 years. "We have a whole different set of communications than I am familiar with, and that existed when I first started out, went to a camp, watched the best players and did a report on them. They have taken it to different levels. There are multiple problems that need to be resolved, and I don't think anyone knows the exact solution to it. How do you legislate these people who claim they are media representatives?"'We Run Things Right'
Many of the unofficial team Web sites that cover the basketball and football teams at division I schools fall under the umbrella of two parent companies: Rivals.com and Scout.com. Each entity provides national coverage of college basketball and football recruiting on their central Web sites, while operating a network of more narrowly focused sites devoted to specific schools.
The prominence of Rivals and Scout -- and by extension, the team sites run by each company -- has flourished over the past decade, as fans have clamored for information on their respective programs. Writers for these sites commonly are credentialed for team and national events.
Whereas those who run independent sites usually work other full-time jobs and then spend hours per day on what they consider an expensive hobby, those who run Rivals or Scout sites often do not work elsewhere and in many cases also work on a print publication.
Many of those who work for Scout and Rivals sites say they follow a code of ethics and understand the potential recruiting issues that could arise. Several said they should never promote one school, disparage another or display a fan allegiance to any. Some also said they identify themselves only as a representative from Rivals or Scout and do not say they cover a specific school.
"I can go out and pay $9.99 to buy a Web site," said James Henderson, the managing editor of http://PackPride.com, a Scout affiliate that covers North Carolina State. "That doesn't make me a credible media member. It gives us a bad name. I roll my eyes when I hear people talk about super fans, because a lot of our sites get lumped together with these others."
Several industry sources said the majority of Rivals and Scout sites operate above board. But they said there are exceptions.
Tate Myers, 31, grew up near Winston-Salem, N.C., and has been a Wake Forest fan his entire life. Myers maintained an active presence on the message boards at DeaconSports.com, a Scout affiliate devoted to coverage of Wake Forest athletics, for years before seeking out employment by the site a year and a half ago.
Since then, he has served as a recruiting analyst for the site, a role that brought him to John Paul Jones Arena on the University of Virginia campus in June for the NBA Players Association Top 100 camp. Sitting in the stands during a night session, Myers placed a call on his cellphone to Demon Deacons men's basketball assistant coach Rusty LaRue.
"Coach, I've got C.J. Barksdale here for you," Myers said. "I'm going to put him on the line now."
Seated next to Myers was Barksdale, a 6-7 forward in the Class of 2011. He had just completed a game and was talking with coaches from his AAU team, the Richmond Squires, when Myers pulled him aside.
Barksdale has drawn interest from schools such as Florida, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, but only the Demon Deacons got a chance to speak with him that night. LaRue and Barksdale spoke for roughly 10 minutes.
When told of the Wake Forest story, Gibbons, the recruiting analyst, said: "There you go. [Myers] can be the messenger. While [coaches] are not allowed to have direct contact . . . these guys are their runners and their agents and their reps. It's scary."
Myers, when asked about the interaction in a phone interview, said: "C.J. knew that Coach LaRue had been trying to get in touch with C.J. It was just a matter of I was there and C.J., he didn't have a working number, I don't believe, at the time for Coach LaRue, or something along those lines. That was actually something that just kind of popped up."
Myers maintained that neither he nor his co-workers routinely serve as conduits of communication between members of the coaching staff and potential recruits. He said that, although it often is difficult, he is conscious of having to put aside his "Wake bias" when he is on the job.
A college coaching staff is allowed one phone call to a high school recruit per month beginning June 15 of the recruit's sophomore year through July 31 after the recruit's junior year, according to Stacey Osburn, the NCAA's associate public relations director. If a coaching staff uses a third party to speak with a recruit over the phone, Osburn said that constitutes the staff's phone call for that month. The 2009 NBAPA Top 100 Camp ran June 17-21.
"I make no bones about it: The people on this staff, we're Wake Forest fans, but when it comes down to it, we're journalists," Myers said.
Spencer Cagle, who runs DeaconSports.com, described the event as a "one-time situation" and said the "bottom line is we run things right, and we want to make sure that is clear in what you write. We've run this site for years, and quite honestly, we're more straight-edge than a lot of what you see out there."
Henderson, who runs http://PackPride.com, called Myers's contact "ridiculous. That type of crap should not be allowed. If I was running that camp and saw a reporter hand a phone to a recruit, that reporter should be kicked out and have his credential removed. What can he really be doing with a phone that could be good in that situation? If you know the rules, you need to be turned in for something like that. That is facilitating a recruitment."'Compliance Officer's Nightmare'
Throughout the decade, transgressions have ranged from some Internet reporters wearing team polo shirts at events to what occurred earlier this decade at Kentucky, which banned one fan, Brian Poe, from having any involvement with the school's athletic program for 27 years. The offense: Poe, who ran a Kentucky fan Web site, inappropriately interviewed high school football prospects and circulated e-mails to his subscribers asking for help in recruiting athletes and encouraging them to contact prospects. What's more, he allowed a junior college recruit to live in his house.
Kentucky "just did not understand the Web world at the time," Poe said in a telephone interview last week. "They say they don't want the Internet to affect their recruiting, but they're interviewing kids, which is what everybody's doing now. It was just totally illegal back then. All we did was what everybody's doing now."
Fans who interview prospects for a Web site walk a fine line. Doug Archie, Ohio State's associate athletic director for compliance and camps, said if a fan talks to a prospect and starts saying as little as " 'Man, you'd look great in a Buckeye uniform,' or, 'You should be at Ohio State,' then we have crossed the line at that moment."
"That," Archie added, "is a compliance officer's nightmare."
A scan of Web sites in recent months illustrates how widespread independent sites with recruiting focuses are and how difficult it is for anyone to monitor or police them.
-- An ESPN-affiliated Web site that covers University of Maryland recruiting, http://InsideMDSports.com, offered a subscription bonus if prospect Lance Stephenson committed to the school. The Web site displayed a picture of a player whose face was blurred and promoted this offer: "Subscribe annually to InsideMDSports.com this weekend, and you'll have more than just a Terps rooting interest. If any top-10 recruit from New York commits to Maryland . . . everyone who has purchased an annual subscription will receive two free months added."
"We did not include Lance's name in the promotion, so as to avoid any sort of violations," said Jeff Ermann, the executive publisher of http://InsideMdSports.com who also spent nearly a decade as a sportswriter at various newspapers, including The Washington Post. "It was something a lot of people were interested in and following closely. In this business, in terms of interest in the offseason, it's all about recruiting. It was kind of an incentive for people to subscribe to the site."
-- Nolan Comar, a 22-year-old college student who lives in Albany, N.Y., and who aspires to be a coach, started an independent site (http://cuttingdownnets.wordpress.com) in June that primarily covers Georgetown recruiting because he is a longtime fan. Comar usually acquires contact information through Facebook, a social networking site. He said he has interviewed high-profile recruits such as senior Jelan Kendrick of Westlake High in Atlanta and junior Quinn Cook of DeMatha, and has told a couple players that he is a Georgetown fan. He said the site had been getting 2,000 hits per day.
"Getting access to interviews ended up being a little bit easier than I thought it would," said Comar, later adding that there are a couple players that he would like to attend Georgetown. "Kendrick has done really well this summer, and I would really like him to go to Georgetown, but they have to do what's best for them."
-- K.T. Harrell, a top 100 guard from Montgomery, Ala., had always wanted to play in the ACC but admitted he was receiving little interest from ACC teams. That changed after Harrell said he developed a relationship with Mark Reeves, the Rivals director of basketball information and multimedia resources, who told Harrell that Virginia would be a good fit for him. Although it was not known whether Harrell's contacts with Reeves influenced his recruitment, Harrell orally committed to Virginia this month without taking an official visit.
-- Dave Kersey, a Kentucky fan who is an administrator on http://TrueBlueKentucky.com, posted that he sat and talked with Barton's mother during a tournament in Orlando and discussed the possibility of her son reneging on his commitment to Memphis.
In a July 29 entry, Kersey wrote: "When I mentioned to her . . . that there was a rumor floating around about Will being not so sure about his quick trigger with Memphis, she looked me straight in the eye and said 'he's going to Memphis.' . . . Behind the scenes I know there is some movement, just not sure what. And, I think she didn't understand my capacity as a non-coach, just a fan, so that she thought she shouldn't be talking with me in those tones."
Declining to pinpoint specific Web sites, Barton said fans at some schools were "very persistent, wanting me to commit to their school and their Web site guys, but it is all good. That comes with the territory of being one of the top recruits in the country. And I enjoyed the ride."
Then there was a YouTube.com video that showed a young woman identified only as Nikki from the independent site http://MemphisRoar.com, conducting an interview with Barton after he committed to Memphis. After Nikki told Barton "we are glad to have you here," she closed the interview by asking whether Barton indicated he was single on a social networking site and then said, "I'm sure [girls] will be around."
Brooks Hansen, an avid college basketball fan, started http://MemphisRoar.com in January, and the site has attracted 2,600 members since. Hansen said there are sites "who try to insert too much influence where it is not their place. That's not what we are. . . . To me, there is enough shadiness in the game already. Why do I need to add any more?"
Hansen said he does not expect Memphis to approve his site's request for media credentials for the upcoming basketball season because he said the school is concerned about the presence of independent sites and wants to observe MemphisRoar for a longer period of time.
Before concluding a recent telephone interview with a reporter, Hansen said: "Are we going to be one of those questionable sites [in the story], or are we going to be one of the good ones? I would understand either way."
Staff writers Mark Viera and Zach Berman contributed to this report.