Do Coaches Bear Enough of the Risk that Comes with Recruiting High-Risk Student-Athletes?

The University of Oregon recruited Brandon Austin despite the fact that he had been suspended for the season by Providence College last December. It is important to note that basketball coach Dana Altman claims he did not know that Austin had been linked to a sexual assault investigation until March and that Austin’s former coach Ed Cooley apparently informed him that the suspension related to a university matter rather than a criminal one. I say apparently because Cooley claims he was far more vague: “(Altman) asked me why he was leaving and I said he needed to talk to Brandon, and that I wasn’t at liberty to talk about an ongoing campus investigation.” Finally, Altman inferred that the suspension did not relate to a criminal matter because Providence did not want Austin to transfer.

Altman’s reasoning may or may not have been sound, but he faced the same dilemma that lots of college coaches do: Should you take a chance on a talented player even though there is a yellow flag? The problem is that this decision making process is overwhelmingly stacked in favor or erring on the side of being incautious.

First, let’s acknowledge the obvious. Coaches are judged more by whether they win games than by whether their players graduate or behave well, or even passably. But the problem runs much deeper. The benefits of recruiting a high-risk player far exceed the risks. The player that pans out on the court helps your team win, rise in the rankings, qualify for or advance in the postseason. The player who ends up being more trouble than he is worth gets dismissed from the team and his scholarship gets replaced. Coaches get almost all of the benefits that come with recruiting high-risk athletes, but, with rare exception, only a fraction of the costs entailed by allowing them on campus.

How can we change the calculation? Can and should we make it more difficult for coaches to recruit such athletes? The answer, in short, is, yes, we can, but it is harder to determine whether we should.

The key to changing the underlying reasoning is forcing coaches to incur more costs. Imagine if a coach was not allowed to replace a scholarship for four years unless a student-atlete suffered a career-ending injury? the coach couldn’t recruit a new player if she or he failed out, was kicked off the team, or put in prison. Or what if there were strict rules about how long athletes had to be suspended. Four football games or ten basketball games against conference or postseason opponents for the first misdemeanor conviction, a year for the first felony, and a two strikes and your out policy? I strongly suspect that coaches would take far fewer risks than they now do and that as a result there would be far fewer troubling incidents.

Sounds simple, but there are a number of potential problems. First of all, coaches often don’t know whether a prospect has a troubled past. The criminal records of minors are usually sealed and the people who might be in the know, such as a high school coach, have a vested interest, and perhaps a legal obligation, to remain silent. Second, there is a legitimate question about whether someone’s conduct as a minor, unless it rises to the level of being prosecuted as an adult, should be allowed to impact that person’s recruitment. And third, socio-economic issues would have to be weighed, just as they were the NCAA strengthened admission standards in the early 1980s. There would probably be fewer troubling incidents on campuses, but there also would probably be fewer opportunities for the most disadvantaged. Finally, it is not at all inconceivable that there would be racism, that is, some coaches might shy away from recruiting African-Americans precisely because they would conclude it was inherently risky. The innocent might be painted with the same racist stroke as the guilty because of deeply held stereotypes.

In conclusion, we have a problem because the current rules encourage coaches to wear rose-tinted glasses when they are considering whether to offer a scholarship to a student with a yellow flag. And we can definitely change that calculation, making the price to be paid for getting it wrong as high as the reward for getting it right. But we need to be very careful about considering the consequences that would come with adding the rules proposed above.

–Ken Pendleton

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