Thursday, August 20

Bryce Brown, Brian Butler, and NCAA Basketball

So Bryce Brown’s been suspended from Tennessee football for the foreseeable future. Why? Well, apparently he took part in some tours as a high school sophomore that may have been paid for, and in the land of NCAA this qualifies as an improper benefit. The silver lining for UT in this is that it isn’t their fault; this occurred well before they – or, I’d assume, anyone – recruited Brown. So who arranged the trip? Brian Butler.

Butler’s an interesting character. He runs an organization called Potential Players, which is designed …well, according to their mission statement designed to do pretty awesome stuff. In reality, it’s less life guidance and more recruiting advisement. Okay, so technically that’s Life (or L.I.F.E.) Training, who’s also run by Butler but operates as a for-profit. Potential Players focuses on the spiritual side while LT focuses on recruiting and training. And no, I can’t explain what info you’d get by signing up on Potential Players – if they’re two disparate companies, shouldn’t you just get their preferred prayer locations? I mean, I guess there would be a situation where I would need to know Bryce Brown prefers to pray while showering, but I can’t think of what that situation would be.

As far as these things go, it’s murky but not entirely strange. So let’s muddy the water a bit. Butler’s not exactly a clean soul, but …hey, what else would you expect? But this business model isn’t unique – it’s just relatively unique in college football.

College basketball, on the other hand, is rife with this kind of thing. While the third-party recruiting service is a relatively new thing in college football, it’s somewhere between mildly entrenched and a fact of life in the college basketball realm. Heck, at this point Worldwide Wes is damn near a household name, and there’s reason for that. But there’s more than just Wes, and it’s not getting any better. Quite frankly, although college football recruiting makes me feel a little dirty (really, I should be excited over what a 17-year-old male wants to do? I’m not so recently removed from that and I had no idea what I wanted at all), college basketball recruiting is often so dirty it’ll make you wish for the halcyon days of the 1994 baseball labor strike. The power brokers in b-ball are simply astounding; while they don’t control all the flow of information, they control a lot of it.

The power brokers don’t lack for much. What they don’t directly - or indirectly - control can be summed up by three other sources: AAU, “elite” camps, and high school coaches. AAU and the like are what amounts to summer leagues; the coaches often don’t have a direct affiliation with any specific high school, and often are affiliated with some corporate sponsor or two – Nike and adidas being the two that everyone’s heard of. “Elite” camps are a cute little way to skirt the rules regarding on-campus visits; we’re seeing a couple of these pop up in college football as well. High school coaches are the ones that everyone knows about, but shockingly they have comparatively little pull in the recruiting landscape, as the power brokers use AAU to get their pull in. (They don't control AAU teams, as far as I know - they merely use them as connections.) Even they’re smart enough to not come near the camps.

So thanks to the above, the college basketball world has turned into is a nasty little pool of people exploiting the under-18 crowd by as many ways as possible in as short a time as possible; the problem – from the NCAA’s perspective – is how the heck do you untangle it? The elite camps fall outside of the realm of regulations, and so does AAU. The brokers are smart enough to not be directly involved with any of the recruitment process directly; again, they position themselves as brokers, who provide access and information in exchange for fees without providing coercion. The NCAA can’t realistically go after sponsors and have any credibility, since the sponsors have a very obvious retaliatory reply – one the NCAA won’t go near. As a result, the NCAA is reduced to hoping and waiting for the brokers to screw up – show up at an elite camp and pass money to an assistant, tout their services as the only way to ensure Prospect X comes to your college (but only at a fee!) – and quite frankly, their role is lucrative enough they’ll never need to do that.

As a result, the NCAA is forced to operate mostly at the margins, striking where they have jurisdiction. Brian Butler walked straight into that with his “academic” trip, which has to be funded from somewhere, right? If the NCAA can show - and no, I don’t know how – that Butler paid for the trip via money from a booster or a school, that’s an improper benefit. I don’t know if they can track money going into his program and claim that money went toward the trip; I doubt they’ll be able to, since I have a sneaking suspicion Butler’s accounting methods are less than exacting.

What this will let the NCAA do is finally exert influence over one of these semi-legitimate brokers. Provided they can prove their case, they may have the ability to limit Butler’s actions by declaring what he did as not allowable under their rules and regulations. That’ll have to be how they operate. If they can do this, then they can then move on to trying to stop something else. For the NCAA, they likely feel this is the only way they’ll be able to stop college football from turning into college basketball.

I’m not sure if I totally agree with that idea, but if guys like Butler can be limited I’d consider that a good thing. Recruiting is often quasi-shady enough without third parties getting involved. Still, until this gets figured out Bryce Brown is caught in the crossfire of a battle he didn’t even know existed. It sucks, but this is the price of making a statement.