The University of Arizona's recent self-sanctioning of the men's basketball program—following offenses relating largely to the on-campus Cactus Classic high school basketball tournament—has played a major role in an attempt by the university to re-evaluate and perhaps limit media access to recruits.
It's a messy, rather convoluted process. Basically, the UA is studying options that could limit what sanctioned media can report on recruiting activities when high school prospects are on campus. These activities include anything from football drills or combines to official on-campus visits by recruits.
"It mostly takes place during official or unofficial visits with kids on campus, or when a kid is here for various camps. It gets into the point where it looks like we're publicizing that a kid is at our camp, and that gets into problems with the rules," said Bill Morgan, the UA's associate athletic director for compliance. "The other thing you need to get into when you start talking about this sort of thing is the gray area of: What is 'media,' and what isn't?
"When you're looking at a Web site with the sole purpose of writing about athletic teams, are they reporting, or are they promoting? We're walking a very fine line, especially with (an) NCAA bylaw ... which basically says a person becomes a booster if he's otherwise involved in promoting the institution's athletic programs. Where do we draw that line (between media and promoter)? How do we draw that line? That's very much a concern."
A number of things are at work here. The NCAA is very testy about what happens during recruiting, and has attempted to put into place countless regulations designed to limit inappropriate behavior by supporters of a given university. High school athletes are a premium priority: If you can lure better talent, your school has a better opportunity to be successful.
In the modern sports-media landscape, recruiting coverage can be a cash cow. While that coverage largely appeals to a niche audience, it's a fanatical niche that craves every tidbit of information, whether accurate and valid or not. That fanaticism has led some media entities to focus on the minutiae of recruiting. However, said coverage can walk that fine line between reporting and promotion.
"What are these people doing? Are they writing valid articles? We are in a risky situation," Morgan said. "We do our best not to impede any media types in any way, but we get concerned from time to time, and if someone is getting what we think is a little close to the (promotion vs. coverage) line, I give them a call.
"Let's be careful about this. It gets to be really hard when they're talking to prospects. What are they saying when they're talking to prospects? Are they helping us recruit? Nine times out of 10, when they think they're helping us, they're not. There's a lot of concern, even among coaches, with media types contacting prospects and being careful about what it is they're saying."
The UA is now considering a plan that could lead the university to suspend credentials for games and press conferences if it determines a media outlet is overstepping its bounds.
But here's the rub: What constitutes "media" these days? As of now, only two Web sites dedicated solely to UA athletics (wildcatsportsreport.com and goazcats.com) are credentialed by the university. However, there are numerous other Web sites without credentials that provide information—so the potential credentialing penalty could conceivably only hurt outlets that already have credentials.
"My fear with these rules is that noncredentialed media can still see these events," said Brad Allis, who works with me on UA pregame and postgame broadcasts on KCUB AM 1290 and operates ESPN-affiliated wildcatsportsreport.com. "There are media entities that aren't credentialed, and they're potentially more dangerous than the ones that are. They're dot-com guys doing things with cameras and writing. They don't understand plagiarism. They don't understand the basic tenets of journalism. They're the guys who are the most dangerous.
"Even more dangerous is the blog, and there are a bunch of these college-sports-network blogs that are unsanctioned. I saw someone interview a recruit at a UA basketball game the other day. I don't know who it was. He wasn't affiliated with any of the sites I know—a guy doing it on his cell-phone cam with a recruit on his official visit. That's a violation. I've seen guys with cell-phone cams conducting interviews with recruits outside of events while the credentialed media were trying to do their job. ... Anyone with a $50 camera can update a Web site."
One of those credentialed Web sites, goazcats.com, is at the center of the UA's recent self-sanctioning effort. Among other things, the university has recommended sanctions that will lead to the temporary removal of a men's basketball scholarship, as well as a decrease in on-the-road recruiting/evaluation time. Jim Storey, the founder of goazcats.com, rented McKale Center to host the Cactus Classic, a high school basketball tournament that featured prospective recruits.
Storey is no longer affiliated with the Web site. The NCAA has yet to make a decision on the UA's recommendations. Meanwhile, the UA hopes that implementing more stringent media-coverage guidelines can help show that the university is making an effort to crack down on an impossible situation.
"We're likely going to put something in, in some form, to get (the media) to understand we have to watch out for this, and secondly, to say to the NCAA, 'Hey, we did the best we could,'" said Morgan. "(The NCAA wants to know): When it comes to an infraction, what did you do to stop it? Well, these are the proactive stances we took to try to prevent these sorts of things from happening, and if it didn't work, well, at least we tried, and we can show that we tried, and that helps."