In recent weeks, I’ve attempted to show some of the ridiculous nature and culture created by the NCAA and its bylaws. Today, I’ve got a story that hits very close to home for me.
Back in 2001, with one foot still in the door of my broadcast television career, some TV buddies of mine and I had a crazy idea: What if we created professional-grade video for recruitable high school basketball players, empowering them to provide college coaches with the best-possible tools to evaluate their play?
So we did. We formed a little company we called “HoopTV” (later, that company was purchased by a company named "MaxxAthlete"), and for a couple of summers, we’d take off from our “day jobs” in July to shoot video of NCAA-hopefuls in places like Las Vegas, Orlando, and Houston.
For illustration purposes, here’s a feature we launched back then called “Dunk of the Day.” This clip features current UNC Tar Heel James Michael McAdoo.
Yes, I know he traveled. Get past it.
The college and prep coaches loved it, the players finally had video in their hands that was vastly superior to “mom-cam” footage (as college coaches called it), and we were happy to be providing a real service to prospective student-athletes, many of whom were disadvantaged, from poor backgrounds, had hard home lives … or all of the above.
One of our first clients was a man named Curtis Symonds. Curtis was (and still is, to his immense credit) a summer AAU coach. Now, I know what many of you are already thinking; those three letters of “AAU” trigger a variety of connotations from people who follow college basketball, and hardly any of them are positive.
Well, Curtis is and was the antithesis to all of those stereotypes. A passionate man who wanted to give back to young people who’d come up hard like he did, he longed to help young athletes use their skills on the basketball court to break the cycles of poverty and violence that was a central part of so many of their everyday lives.
You see, Mr. Symonds wasn’t just another successful businessman, and he was anything but a run-of-the-mill AAU coach. No, Curtis had helped BET CEO Robert Johnson run the network up until the time of its sale to Viacom in 2000 for around $2.3 billion (You can read more about Curtis’ amazing work and new vision here).
And Symonds was using considerable parts of his wealth to mentor and lead these young men and women. To that end, he always paid for all of the video we shot for all of his kids. Even the ones who had no hope of reaching Division I. His kids never paid a dime for our services when they played for Curtis Symonds. He'd often say to his players, "the eye in the sky (video) don't lie" and "they have to know who you are to recruit you".
He once told me, “Mark, the video we get from you guys was the difference between a kid getting a free education and being on the street.” Those powerful words still resonate strongly with me, over a decade later.
Still, in the back of my mind, I always had a struggle of conscience in selling video directly to these young people. Our cottage industry started with the best of intentions, but there was no getting around it - most players didn’t have a benefactor like Curtis Symonds, and our business model was asking then, teenagers whose families often didn’t have enough money for food, let alone videotape, to pay us for our services.
Then, what should have been obvioius to us from the beginning came to the forefront. We asked ourselves, "Who DOES have seemingly unlimited budgets? And who is the end-user of these products?"
The answer to both questions was obvious: the NCAA coaches themselves.
Keep in mind that at the time, the NCAA was in the middle of a television Seven-year deal they'd signed with CBS to the tune of $6 billion (with a "B") in 1999, and this was only for coverage of the men's field of 64, and did not include regular season games.
The money flowing into and out of these programs was enough to make King Midas blush, and all of this was before the most recent TV contract (the one which the NCAA would sign in 2010 with CBS & Turner, and the one for ONLY the NCAA tournament - that was worth almost $11 BILLION).
Suffice to say, the schools could afford our services much more readily than could the players trying to get recruited by them.
So HoopTV set off to market our services directly to the schools. We talked with countless event organizers. We talked with shoe companies. With compliance officers and with coaches. We attended numerous NCAA meetings, teleconferences, and seminars. All was going swimmingly, with nary a hint of trouble from anyone along our path. Not a single member of any of the above groups relayed even one potential issue, and we had several schools interested in signing up.
A couple of weeks prior to the start of the summer club season, we got a call from a would-be subscriber at a Big Ten school. The assistant coach on the line said that they’d love to use our services, but that they'd been told by their compliance department that our company’s offering was in violation of NCAA bylaws. Horrified, we rushed to the nearest computer and downloaded the latest copy of War and Pea- … I mean, the NCAA Handbook.
To our dismay, we found the bylaw in question, NCAA Bylaw 13.14.3: “Recruiting or Scouting Services”, particularly, part “g” of that bylaw, which states that a member institution may purchase video from a recruiting services so long as it:
PROVIDES VIDEO THAT IS RESTRICTED TO REGULARLY SCHEDULED (REGULAR SEASON) HIGH SCHOOL,PREPARATORY SCHOOL OR TWO-YEAR COLLEGE CONTESTS AND FOR WHICH THE INSTITUTION MADE NO PRIOR ARRANGEMENTS FOR RECORDING.
In shorthand, what that means is that video from all summer season, AAU or club team competition was embargoed. Heck, it meant that high school and junior college playoff games were out of bounds. And it even meant that, when a college coach was standing directly beside one of our cameras while we were shooting video at NCAA-sanctioned events like the Nike Peach Jam, the Kingwood Classic, or the Adidas Big Time, the college coaches could not purchase the footage, even though they’d been at the games in-person.
Now, the coaches were told by the NCAA that they were welcome to watch the video and even possess it, so long as their programs did not pay for the video. The kids would have to buy it. Or (opening an entirely different can of worms), agents, boosters, shoe companies (or anyone else, for that matter) could buy it and GIVE it to the coaches.
Does that sound like an environment conducive to the ideals set forth by the NCAA? I didn’t think so. Still don’t. So we protested this rule directly to the good folks in Indianapolis. College programs both large and small entered the fray on our behalf and more importantly, on behalf of the players. And we were passed around. And around some more. And then some more.
After about a year and a half of this, we finally threw up our hands and declared "No mas".
Now ultimately, it wasn’t the people in our little group who paid the price for this rule. It wasn't the tournament organizers who felt the sting, nor the shoe company execs. And it certainly wasn't the college coaches. At least, not directly.
No, the burden of getting this footage in the hands of the college recruiters fell back into the hands of the people who were least equipped to pay for it, the high school players themselves.
And every since then, I've wondered numerous times about those kids ... the players like the ones Curtis Symonds helped rescue from the vicious cycle of the streets. How many did we miss helping because we weren't there, or because they couldn't afford our video? How many kids could have gone to school but didn't, simply because they were never seen by recruiters?
Two years passed after we were shot down by the NCAA, and a coach who’d go on to win a national championship stood beside one of our cameras while we were at the Nike Peach Jam, covering the event for ESPN. He’d just watched a, until then, unknown player go off for 20+ points in a thrilling win. The millionaire college coach turned, with a big smile on his face, and asked, “What do I have to do to get a copy of that game?”
I answered the only way I could: “That’s a long story, coach. You got a minute?”