Originally created 07/13/97

Cheating enters realm of women's basketball



CHICAGO -Lost in the recent hype and contrived hysteria surrounding women's basketball (contact WNBA shill Hannah Storm for more information) was this little item involving the "We Got Next" generation:

"The NCAA Committee on Infractions has placed Kansas State University on probation for two years for violations in the conduct of its women's basketball program. The violations were of NCAA bylaws governing summer camps, recruiting, out-of-season practice and institutional responsibility for monitoring programs."

So said the NCAA statement, which added that Kansas State voluntarily forfeited all conference and non-conference games during the 1995-96 season. The coach responsible for the violations, Brian Agler, has since left the program and is now coaching the Columbus (Ohio) Quest of the newly born American Basketball League.

Cheating isn't anything new in women's college sports. NCAA enforcement officials say they've investigated such improprieties for years. Agler was stupid enough to get caught.

What is different - and disturbing - is the growing presence of street agents and AAU middle(men? women?) who are beginning to broker deals for female high school recruits. It happens more than you think.

"We've always had a few of them, but never the hands-out type of people," said a well-known Division I women's coach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Now we're getting almost a professional AAU type of middle person in the recruiting person.

"Will I shake this guy's hand? Yes. Will I put something in it? No."

Someone will. Chances are someone already has.

America wanted gender equity and slowly, much too slowly, it's getting it. But as women's basketball expands, as television taps into the market, as programs such as national champion Tennessee, Stanford, Georgia, Virginia and Connecticut begin to see themselves as revenue-makers, there exists a greater likelihood of rules abuses. It happened with Division I men. It will happen with Division I women.

"It's pretty simple," said Andy Landers, whose Georgia teams have made four women's Final Four appearances. "I don't think we're there."

Not yet they aren't, but give them time.

Another Final Four coach, again speaking on background, said some entry-level college coaches, intent on making a name for themselves, are bending the rules all the time. Too many phone calls to a recruit. One too many "accidental" contacts. Lots of negative recruiting.

"I don't get the sense of anything shady going on, but the young coaches could be a danger," said the longtime coach.

This isn't exactly a vote of confidence, but nobody ever said Title IX was perfect. Success and visibility have their price. For women's basketball, that includes occasionally imitating the worst of Division I men's programs.

Kansas State is serving time in the NCAA big house because knucklehead Agler, among other things, knowingly employed several prospective recruits at his camp. That's nothing. Wait until the street agents discover there's a steady dollar to be made by brokering the better women's players. Wait until someone offers to take an SAT test for a struggling recruit.

Competition for the very best women's recruits is hyperintense. There are recruiting services, ratings systems, near-mandatory summer all-star tournaments. It is fast becoming a mirror image of men's recruiting, which isn't a good thing.

So far, said the NCAA, there haven't been any cases involving a women's recruit receiving, say, a set of keys to a fire-engine red Miata. And if some serious money has changed hands, the NCAA doesn't know about it.

So why then do we get the queasy feeling that sooner or later, someone will pull the trigger on a scandal? With gender equity comes cheating equity.

"Whether or not there will be some kind of problem is hard to say," said Kansas State Athletic Director Max Urick. "But the problems will be more visible. The reality now is that they will be on the front page for all to see."

In a perfect world, college women's basketball would stay the same, rather than lurch toward the flawed men's model. It is the perfect combination of innocence, TV time and no Hannah.

As the wise Garth said in Wayne's World:" "We fear change." That's how I feel about the women's game. Bigger might be better, but it also might not be worth the trouble. Already there is talk of college's best players bolting school early for the WNBA or ABL.

"I think the women's game is going to stay the same until the established coaches who are in the game now move out or get fired," said Georgia's Landers. "I'm talking about (Stanford's) Tara VanDerveer, (Tennessee's) Pat Summitt, (Connecticut's) Geno Auriemma. We're the kind of people who, when that AAU guy comes at us, we'll turn around and walk away."

How comforting. But what happens when they leave? Who wants next?