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Dwight Howard and Public Recruiting of Athletes

One of the more interesting stories of the NBA offseason is whether free agent center Dwight Howard will stay with the Lakers or head for greener pastures elsewhere. Since the end of the season, the Lakers have launched a very public campaign to show Howard that they want him back. Which got me to thinking about the NCAA’s recruiting publicity rules.

Free agency and college recruiting already had some similarities. There are set time periods you can contact prospective athletes. Both free agents and tops recruits are flown in, wined (hopefully figuratively in college) and dined, and generally shown a good time. And when a major target signs there are big press conferences about the future of the program being bright. Take the pursuit of Peyton Manning last year, which had all the hallmarks of not just any high-profile college recruiting battle but also of a major coaching search (private plane tracking for instance).

But one of the biggest differences besides the dollar amounts (or lack thereof) is that the NBA (and other professional leagues) have no rules about publicity regarding a team’s pursuit of a free agent. Pro teams have taken out newspaper ads, hung banners and discussed why their team was the best fit for a potential signee for years. In many cases, what a high profile free agent can sign for is set by the NBA collective bargaining agreement, so teams have to compete on the same things college coaches must pitch: facilities, playing style, the city’s amenities, and weather.

Now college coaches, using mostly Twitter, are pushing the envelope of the NCAA’s publicity rules. The biggest difference between #StayD12 and #ComePlayWRforTheJoker is singling out Dwight Howard and the quality of the Photoshops. If we see what pro teams will do with no rules, why not allow colleges to publicly discuss and woo recruits?

The two biggest arguments against would surround Twitter recruiting and visits to campus. The toothpaste is already out of the tube when it comes to fans trying to contact and sway the decisions of recruits on social media. But a coach publicly identifying top targets would exacerbate the problem. Same if a school could promote when prospects come on visits. Some recruits would create a circus atmosphere that might be a significant part of their decision, but would prevent any hope of the visit looking anything like a normal day in the life of a student-athlete.

But do we care? As media coverage of recruiting continues to grow, all of these issues will get worse no matter what the NCAA does. Boosters will try and get in touch with recruits whatever way they can and make their own pitch. Fans will know when a recruit is on campus and make sure the prospect knows that they want him. Are we that far from groups of basketball fans heading to Vegas in July to follow a top target around the summer AAU circuit?

There are a lot of rules in the NCAA that fall in this category of slowing down inevitable trends. In fact for some people, that’s the entire NCAA rule book. But there are definitely areas where the trend is clearly going in one irreversible direction, the NCAA itself acknowledges the rule is not that important, and the rule just serves to get coaches in trouble if they try to stay too close behind the wave.

The final nail in the publicity rule’s coffin is that coaches talking up recruits, universities buying newspaper ads, and visits turning into red carpet galas is that it is not that much more ridiculous than the present. Hastily edited photos posted to Twitter, commitment codes, and sending a prospect hundreds of letters in a single day cost just as much and make even less difference in the recruiting process.

Sadly, this entire discussion is irrelevant because the NCAA’s publicity rules will never be removed. And the reason is that coaches would rather pick up the petty violations than have to recruit in the open. Recruiting in the open means actually identifying top targets, addressing scholarship limits, and responding to countless questions about how the next class is coming. Of all the things coaches have to do, recruiting is one of their least favorite. Having to talk about recruiting might be at the very bottom.

Jeanie Buss-LA Lakers.

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