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Daily Babble: Wonderings About A So-Called Breakthrough Agreement Between the NBA and NCAA

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Originally, this column was going to be written with two stated goals: To trumpet the wonders of a potentially soon-to-be-completed pact between the NBA and NCAA, and to tell you that Blake Ress really doesn't sound like too wise a guy.

One conversation with Blake Ress later, those objectives have changed.  Because I'm really not sure how I feel about this agreement anymore, and I can tell you that Blake Ress is no fool.

The first order of business is the agreement.  As reported by the Indianapolis Business Journal's Anthony Schoettle, the NBA and NCAA are nearing an agreement that will allow them to redesign -- and possibly monopolize -- youth basketball in this country:

The desire to bring structure to youth basketball development and to field improved teams for international competition is the driving force behind the agreement. For two years, the parties have been discussing a pact to develop year-round training programs for high school players and academies for elite players; conduct sanctioned cobranded youth leagues, tournaments and development programs for coaches and officials; and explore corporate partnerships that could pay for such sweeping initiatives.

Minimizing contact between
young players and the shoe companies and apparel makers that often stage summer basketball leagues and tournaments is a central goal of the deal, but there are some self-serving motives, industry experts said, especially on the part of the NBA. 

"The fact that the NBA and NCAA are coming together in an energetic way to take a comprehensive look at youth basketball is very encouraging," [USA Basketball President Val] Ackerman said. "This is not just about basketball; it’s about preparing young people for life." 

At first glance, this sounds like a pretty solid idea.  The youth basketball landscape has long been considered in need of overhaul, with the sizable influences of shoe companies, sponsorships and certain AAU organizations all playing roles that have likely been too large in shaping the careers of young basketball players and not large enough in shaping them as solid citizens.  It would seem that it couldn't hurt for the NBA and NCAA to take a shot.

But along comes Blake Ress, who happens to be the commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association, to throw water on the parade -- and to do it in a way that really drives me crazy to boot.  In addition to using a few other comments from Ress against the proposed agreement, Schoettle ends with the following assertion from the IHSAA commish:

IHSAA’s Ress finds it ironic that the NBA would position itself alongside the NCAA to mold young people.

"With the problems the NBA has, I don’t know what they can do to improve the development of youth and high school basketball," Ress said. "The NBA is trying to latch onto anything to clean up its own image."

My initial response could be summed up in one word: Ugh.

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This is the part that was going to be the body of the original column, a part I really was looking forward to writing.  It would be the long-winded rant about how Ress' comments about the NBA's image problem showed that he really didn't get it.  That human beings don't magically go from being perfect citizens to classless jerks the moment they sign an NBA contract.  That the actual problem likely has a lot more to do with the fact that when kids start getting treated like gods as preteens because they have some athletic talent -- and nobody takes the time to mention that this shouldn't excuse them from going to class, showing respect to the people around them and maintaining a modicum of citizenship -- that they can turn into people who aren't going to be sparkling role models as NBA players. 

So on and so forth.  Trust me, this was going to be one of my better rants for a while.  Especially when I got to the part about how as someone who oversees high school athletics, nobody should be more cognizant of this than a guy like Blake Ress.  How Ress' comments only seemed to epitomize the problem: That it drives me up a wall that we somehow put the onus for the image problem wholly on the NBA when it should also be very much on parents, teachers, coaches, the AAU, shoe companies and all the other immediate influences on these young athletes during their formative years.

Except, see, here's the thing: Blake Ress might be the last person who needs to hear all that.

Somehow, the quotes that made it into the article seem to align Ress with shoe marketing mogul Sonny Vaccaro, because Vaccaro is also against the agreement.  What doesn't come through quite clearly enough is what Ress made quite clear when he took time to chat with me yesterday: that Sonny Vaccaro and Blake Ress come against this pact from completely different directions.

Vaccaro, who is described by Schoettle as having "handled grass-roots marketing for Nike, Reebok and Adidas," is predictably upset about the very premise behind the agreement: That it will push the shoe companies further away and make it harder for their marketers to sink their talons into neophyte players.  Which means less green for Sonny and friends.  Not much sympathy here for that plight.

On the polar opposite end of that spectrum sits Blake Ress, who thinks that the proposal doesn't go far enough to address the issues discussed above.  Because, for all the lip service paid to 'developing these young people for life,' it doesn't seem to him that this program is intended to develop these kids into anything more than basketball machines as of now.

"In the Midwest, no one has spoken to anybody as far as asking for input from someone who is involved in high school education-based sports," Ress says.  "I don’t know what’s happened on the East Coast or the West Coast, but for this part of the country you can quote me on that."

Uh-oh.

That discussion above about helping young basketball players continue to ascend through the ranks while becoming responsible citizens as well?  It is unfathomable to imagine that this can be done without intertwining the basketball initiatives with education initiatives.  For the good of these kids, the goal needs to be helping them become well-educated both on the basketball court and off.  Because not all of them will make the collegiate or professional levels.  But all of them should be as well-prepared as possible for life both inside and outside the NCAA and the Association, for the benefit of the athletes, of the NCAA looking for better basketball and of the league so allegedly concerned with erasing its image problem.

Which is why Ress is more than willing to speak his mind on the matter:

""I think that anything they should do should be limited to the summer," he says.  "They should get some high school associations involved in the discussions rather than making these decisions without anyone that deals with high school sports as an education-based thing.  I don’t really understand the NBA’s role in this at all.  I think that they need to be getting input from those people that deal ethically and morally with high school kids."

No, it isn't that the idea is a bad one in principle, to Ress.  He even concedes that it would be an improvement over the current set-up, but he can't understand why the leagues won't consult the people who deal with high school athletes on a day-to-day basis, the people who in some areas hold athletes to strict eligibility and conduct standards and who understand how to appeal to them best.

"Part of what they’re talking about is good," Ress says.  "My understanding of what they’re trying to do is the idea of getting kids away from these summer tournaments that Nike and Adidas put on…all those are just basketball mills.  There is nothing in there about integrity or ethics or morals or anything other than basketball.  You can get anything if you’re a basketball player.  The stud athletes – I believe some of them are being paid to be there, which is totally illegal.  I think they’re trying to get at that, and I think the NBA is providing the NCAA the money to try and get at that, [but] how do you do that and not even consult the people that are involved in high school education-based sports?"

Ress doesn't have an answer for that one.  Neither do I.

Suddenly, the idea that looked so promising at the outset seems to require a lot more tweaking.  We know that the NBA has its own share of self-based motives (the IBJ article cites possible corporate partnerships and David Stern's interest in building a stronger USA basketball program as two in particular).  Some of us (read: me) want to -- and might be willing to -- believe that the NBA also wants to do what is really in the best interests of young athletes and, by extension, its own image.

But thanks to the insight Mr. Ress provides, one has to wonder just how strong that last desire is for the Association.

An idea that for a time seemed to make so much sense now seems to warrant further scrutiny at best, and we will be inquiring to the best of our abilities into that arena.  

Because, as of right now, I really don't know what to tell you about this NBA-NCAA agreement.

Except for this: It was probably my decision of the week thus far to call the IHSAA before unfairly skewering another working man who seems to have his head screwed on pretty well and his mind and heart in the right place after all.