Andrew Wiggins, the top-rated high school basketball player in the country and the most hyped teenage talent since Kevin Durant and maybe even LeBron James, will announce where he will spend a single year playing college basketball this afternoon. He has narrowed his choices to four — Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, and Florida State — but in the run-up to today’s decision, it seems no one knows where Wiggins is going except Wiggins himself. Rob Fulford, his coach at Huntington Prep in West Virginia jokingly changed his Twitter avatar this week to read “I don’t know where Andrew Wiggins is going.”
Wiggins has eschewed the spotlight since his recruitment began, avoiding interviews and keeping the process to himself and his family. Even today, a kid who could have his own The Decision-type special on ESPN won’t hold a press conference to announce his destination. Instead, there will be a single reporter in the room at a private ceremony with friends, teammates, students, and family at his high school.
That’s a rarity in today’s world of college sports, where recruiting has become a major business. Sites like Rivals.com and Scout.com emerged to rank recruits and assign star values to them. Media outlets from ESPN to the local dailies cover recruiting as fervently as they cover the athletes who are already on campus. Recruits now announce their decisions in made-for-TV press conferences, a row of hats with logos of their final few schools lining a tabletop in front of them. An athlete like Andrew Wiggins has more than 75,000 Twitter followers (at this writing), a world in which fan blogs parse his every word for a hint of where he may play college ball. And high school athletes who don’t even receive scholarship offers hold fake press conferences to announce that they’ll play football or basketball for a coach they’ve never actually talked to — all for a moment in the sun.
That’s a culture Andrew Wiggins apparently wants no part of. While his treatment of his choice has drawn criticism from fans who want to know where he is going and cynics who think he put off his decision until the last moment simply to draw attention, it’s ultimately a refreshing approach.
But it is also telling, a chance for introspection about a system the world of college basketball often ponders but rarely does anything about. The business of recruiting has become the place where the problems of major college basketball first set in. The attention paid to high school kids trying to earn their way to college and beyond has made it a big money business, not just for media outlets but for the collection of handlers who surround talented young athletes. The AAU basketball scene has exploded, filled with coaches with shady pasts and “advisers” who promise to help kids and their families find the best fit for college. But those advisers almost always have a hand out — to boosters from interested colleges, to agents eager to sow a seed with a guy who is destined for a big money contract in the pros — and often, the player and his parents don’t have a clue.
The whole system feels exploitative. Last week, news broke that an AAU coach accepted cash and benefits to help steer former Kansas basketball star Ben McLemore to a particular agent, even before McLemore enrolled at Kansas. McLemore, you might remember, is the kid who overcame extreme poverty to excel on the court, a kid who dreamt of making the NBA so that he could help his mother afford food, electricity, and hot water all at the same time. He had, according to the coach, no knowledge that the system was playing him when all he was trying to do was play basketball.
The system — the “cesspool” of college recruiting, as Dick Vitale once put it — has been propped up by the NCAA’s “amateurism” ideal, which has helped create a market that allows recruits like Wiggins and McLemore to be taken advantage of, rather than acknowledging they’re part of a business, and one where they should be advised by truly professional handlers and agents. And it is only made worse by the constant media attention given to the decisions of 17- and 18-year-old young men.
So those young men become commodities, and they are becoming commodities at younger and younger ages. We hang on their every word, their every move, their every play. We wait for their decision, then pray that they don’t bring problems to the school lucky enough to gain their services, problems that violate NCAA rules and land those schools in trouble. We gasp in shock when those problems arise, wondering how and why it ever could have happened when in reality, it’s almost more shocking when it doesn’t. On top of all that, there’s the pressure — the cross-country flights to AAU tournaments, the pressure to graduate high school early (as Wiggins will do), the requirement that a teenage kid live under the national microscope.
Andrew Wiggins has avoided most of that, and whether it’s because he is a mild-mannered kid who never wanted the spotlight or because he has a family that includes a former college basketball player doesn’t really matter. His close-to-the-vest recruitment won’t change anything — after a few days of speculation about what he will mean to the future of Florida State, Kentucky, Kansas, or North Carolina, the recruiting biz will move on (if it already hasn’t) to the next star, the next kid who will mean enough to a program that it’s worth watching every dribble, every tweet, every word. But today, instead of asking what Wiggins will mean to one of those schools, we ought to look at the maelstrom he did his best to avoid, the one that supposedly exists to promote the best interests of the young men who participate, and ask ourselves what on earth we have created.