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Handlers, Agents, Amateurism, Oh My.

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As I'm sure you're all aware by this point, the Washington Post has reported that in the course of filing suit against his former agents, Michael Beasley effectively admitted that he was receiving improper benefits before (if not during) his time in Manhattan. This, of course, puts his eligibility in question; whether the school itself will be dinged for this is uncertain, as it's possible Michael himself was unaware of the benefits being given to his mother. In that case, the Cam Newton theory comes into play, where even if there were issues with Beasley, the school wouldn't have any liability for them.

But the core aspects of the situation got me thinking, and a comment by Panjandrum is what brings us here. The issue of "handlers" or "runners" seems to be a major problem these days. On the surface, it's obvious that it should be; you don't need professionals working for explotative concerns steering kids into life-changing decisions which are of more benefit to pretty much everyone involved than they are to the kid himself. And it was Pan's mention of Gary Williams' retirement stemming partly from his disgust at Wally Judge showing up with a handler that really triggered a realization.

It's one the old-school college sports fan may very well recoil from in horror.

I need to be clear about this: there is nothing racist or classist about what I'm about to say. The problems I'm going to address are not limited to minorities. They are not limited to the poor. Rich white kids have broken homes, too, and it's not uncommon for rich white kids whose parents are divorced to really only have one active parent. (After all, the reason for the divorce is quite often the emotional or even physical unavailability of one party or the other.)

That disclaimer out of the way: this is not 1950 anymore. It's not even 1980. Once upon a time, you could reasonably assume that most potential recruits had stable home lives and a firm and caring hand to guide the recruit through decision-making. Not that this ever forestalled shenanigans, of course, but one presumes that 1970 helicopter daddy was explaining to his son precisely why he needed to follow the plot, and one also presumes that daddy really does care for his son's best interests anyway.

No, it is now 2011, and we have to accept a cruel reality. Most of the students examining their college choices are from broken homes, and the athletes among that number have that problem in even higher numbers. These kids often don't have the firm hand guiding them as they try to make some of the most important decisions they will ever make in their entire lives. Even if they do have one very involved parent, that's only 25% as much involved parenting as kids had back when the NCAA first developed its ideas on what was and was not appropriate. A kid in the 50s had dad (who wasn't around all the time, because of work) and mom (generally around all the time). Now, dad (or mom, in some cases) is gone, and the remaining parent is usually not around much. Again, this transcends class and race.

So who are these kids going to turn to for advice and guidance? Yeah, sure, it's not like mom and/or dad are completely divorced from the discussion. But they're not going to be the athlete's first option these days, because for a 5-star level athlete, their coaches and trainers are more "parent" to the kid than their own parents anyway. What I mean by that, of course, is that they spend more time with them than they do their own parent(s). They are trained to listen to these guys, and that's not a bad thing; you want an athlete to be paying attention to his/her coaches, right? Not only that, let's think back to how we judge the greatness of a college coach. Sure, wins and losses and hardware and development of pro athletes... those are all important. To a man, though, when you look at the list of the truly great college coaches, one thing always stands out: their players, and the media, tell you about what fine molders of men they are.

That implies a certain level of personal involvement beyond the field or court, doesn't it?

There you have the groundwork, gentle reader. We are in a situation now where we have to accept the involvement of "outsiders" in the development and decision-making of teenage athletes. There's no getting around it; these people have as much or more influence on these kids than their own parent(s), and it's impossible to argue that this is, in a macro sense, a bad thing. They need guidance, and to many of these kids, we're really talking about the development of a surrogate parent situation.

The problem? Many of these surrogates are in it for themselves. They are representatives of shoe companies, or of star stables which are money mills due to endorsement deals which enrich the traveling team but not (theoretically, at least) the players. Sometimes, they are the right hand of boosters, or even extensions of coaching staffs. Very often, of course, we see that they are the employees of agents, looking to get their hooks in years before they have a right to even approach the client.

Not all of them, mind you. Obviously, there are good people out there who are just trying to help these teenagers without any reward other than appreciation and their own sense of good work. The cynic in me insists that this is less common than the scoundrels, though.

So what do we do? If we accept that the teenage athlete often requires "handling" from parties other than their parents, but at the same time recognize that most of the people doing the handling are greedy and self-serving, then how do we solve it?

Hi there, NCAA. Time for you to put some effort into a program rather than just tut-tutting all the time and looking for malfeasance you can punish.

What's needed is a foundation to administer a large-scale volunteer program. You go out and find people who have integrity -- enough integrity that the welfare of these kids, including their potential professional careers, is more important to them than whatever university affiliations they may have, obviously. Yes, that means you have to vet them. This is 2011, it's not that hard. You get them to agree to provide some guidance, advice, and even friendship to the athletes. You promote the program so that the athletes understand these aren't just people trying to latch onto them, and they aren't just creepy athlete-stalking weirdos. You reach out to high schools -- both coaches and counseling staffs -- to get them onboard to support the program and educate the kids as to the program's purpose: to help the athlete make the best decision for him (or her), without self-serving nonsense getting in the way.

Most importantly? You use these volunteer counselors to help keep the vultures away.

There's nothing wrong with teenagers being "handled". Indeed, it's necessary. Let's accept that and look toward a plan that actually meets that requirement while at the same time cleans up all these dirty shenanigans we're all tired of hearing about every few weeks. It's not that much of a challenge from an idea sense, Mark Emmert. Push it.