Today’s universities suffer numerous problems, but one of the most intractable (and sometimes costly) concerns violations committed when recruiting athletes, especially football and basketball players. There are the endless tales of under-the-table payoffs to family members and high-school coaches to steer star athletes who, once on campus, stay in school only because turning pro might bring a cut in pay.
Attempts to police and fix the problems are, at best, pathetic. The rules themselves are so complicated that violations are inevitable, especially since circumventing them can enrich everyone, including the universities themselves. Even if the NCAA could purchase intact the old East German state-security apparatus, it would be a modest beginning given the scope of the problem. There are just too many pressures to recruit marginally qualified students, regardless of NCAA strictures.
Could a university do almost anything to recruit academically troubled students, even make the most outlandish promises and offer any and all enticements, and still not violate stringent NCAA rules? The answer is “yes,” and some universities are already wildly successful, even well-regarded for their efforts.
The secret lies in who does the recruiting and its ultimate justification, not aggressive recruiting. What we propose here is the legalization of practices that currently violate NCAA rules.
If the assistant basketball coach repeatedly badgers a young prospect, wines and dines him, buys a house for his mother, and promises him the world, the university invites an NCAA investigation. But, what if this caller is a man of religion, perhaps a missionary or parish priest? Then the social call — including the promises — is a commendable effort at saving a soul before it goes to hell. No NCAA official would dare raise questions about Father Sweeney’s repeated trips to crime-infested neighborhoods to battle the devil. So what if this noble effort required the assistance of other good Christians who assist in the task by gracing the young man with the comforts of anticipated salvation? After all, preaching to the heathens requires more than abstract promises of eternal life. Man does not live by bread alone — a brand-new iPhone helps. Bringing the word of God and an unsigned letter of commitment to seven-footers with unstoppable baseline moves continues a two-thousand-year-old evangelical tradition.
A little reflection reveals this strategy to be a proven, successful recruitment tactic. It is no accident that schools possessing a religious affiliation — Georgetown, St. John’s, Boston College, Holy Cross, BYU, and, of course, Notre Dame — enjoy both competitive and relatively trouble-free athletic programs. These schools can dispatch their men of the cloth anywhere, anytime, with no restrictions, while his secular assistant-coach competitor is hobbled by a Bible-sized rulebook. This advantage is especially important as universities increasingly rely on athletes from overseas. Who else but missionaries would venture into the far corners of Nigeria to find youngsters who can bench-press 450 pounds? Ohio State University would be well advised to subsidize a permanent Bible school in Samoa, given that there are now 33 Samoans playing in the NFL. Prospective converts can also be brought to campus at any time and treated generously without a hint of impropriety. Not even a Barry Switzer, famed for outfoxing the NCCA in his heyday, could compete with the power of God and his minions.
The message is clear. University divinity schools should take over the troublesome job of recruiting the downtrodden, and it is purely accidental that these souls-to-be-saved can do a 4.5 forty. Public universities may be restricted in putting “clerics” on the payroll, but this function can be outsourced. Perhaps a local seminary or Bible college could volunteer a hand (and collect a finder’s fee). And once admitted to the Bible college. these souls can easily, almost invisibly, transfer to the public university, solving all the problems of the danger-filled recruitment process. A church-affiliated school’s president would, for example, be warmly praised when he announced that, to clean up the athletic department’s mess, the Most Revered Father Patrick O’Brien S.J. and his staff are now in charge of recruitment. Energetic small Protestant schools might utilize their television programs to spread the word worldwide. After all, even Jesus needs a good point guard who can also play D. The days of boosters promising no-show summer jobs will virtually disappear, a victim of higher evolutionary development in the quest for souls to be saved.