Thursday, October 13, 2005

Sneaker Money and the AAU Cesspool

Interesting article on ESPN.com today by Pat Forde about the role of large shoe companies like Nike in the recruiting process. The main focus is junior guard OJ Mayo, originally from Huntington, WV, who now plays for a high school in Cincinnati. Forde could barely get even an answer as to whether he could even talk to Mayo. Apparently his actual high school coach, Jamie Mahaffey, has little or no say in what Mayo and teammate Billy Walker do. Part of the deal struck when they came to his high school was that he would let the entourage of these kids have a wide latitude in handling their recruitment. Such is the predicament of many high school coaches these days. Mayo's AAU coach and "guardian" Dwaine Barnes runs the OJ show, not the man who he plays for. Mayo lives in an apartment across from the school with Barnes. A man who identified himself as the uncle of Mayo turned away Forde but then went on to say that they wanted a good relationship with ESPN. They had already frozen out Sports Illustrated for a story they deemed to be negative. With either a staggering amount of idiocy or shamelessness, I can't decide which, he claimed "[Mayo] didn't ask to be thrust into the spotlight...". That certainly makes sense when you chat with any internet guru who'll listen, give interviews to SI, show up in a made for cable special about a Las Vegas AAU tournament, create a website called www.ojmayo.org when your nephew was in the 7th grade, you're just looking for a little privacy.

So this is the state of college basketball these days. Coaches rub shoulders with these kinds of sleazebags. When you boil it down all the "handlers", bagmen, go-betweens, guardians and sneaker company talent pimps are a bunch of grown men out to chisel a piece for themselves off the trafficking of a 16 year old boy.

Once again lurking in the shadows like a sinister character in some bizarre David Lynch film is Sonny Vaccaro. The 66 year old Vaccaro gladly takes credit for creating the environment that results in the trafficking of these teen phenoms today. He's now with his third shoe company, having sold his services to Nike, Adidas and now Reebok. As he proudly claims, "...No one ever paid AAU coaches before I did...High school coaches were never paid [before I did]...". Now he says the spending in this endorsement arms race is spinning out of control, "Nike and Adidas are both spending millions.". Now that everyone has sunk to Vaccaro's level he doesn't have any advantage. Whether that is just shamelessness, some sort of grotesque cynicism, or a nauseating combination of the two I don't know. Watching him hug and kiss Greg Oden on the cheek gave me the creeps. What do companies get for the millions they spend on this AAU system? If you don't think that Nike would steer a player to a program that is sponsered by them or that Reebok and Adidas don't so the same you're fooling yourself. So goes the race to sign the next Lebron James where the highest bidder wins.

Vaccaro and others like him are outraged that the NBA has instituted the new age requirement. The look at someone like Michelle Wie, another product of greedy and out of control adults, and demand the ability to make money as she will. That's what it is all about in the end, money. It's not rah, rah Carolina or any such nonsense. Colleges and the coaches are merely inconveniences, like taking a driving test so you can pilot your new Porche down the highway at 100 miles an hour. Vaccaro didn't rule out a semi-pro club team of prep players to lazy or dumb to pass the sad NCAA minimums.

If they have trouble getting into school--they might not get in--they've got to have an escape hatch. And it's not the NBDL.
So we can look forward to the Reebok Pinheads versus the Nike Nitwits on ESPN.

Love the game of college basketball and your schools players if you can, but there is nothing lovable about how they get to your local campus. Kudos to Forde for lighting a match instead of cursing the darkness.

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