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Recruiting scrutiny pressures prep stars

In the recruiting world today, hype is everything.

Every year, reporters and scouts scour the United States for the country’s top football and basketball recruits. They will search every nook and cranny of the nation for those few select athletes they deem good enough to be the next generation of luminary athletes.

From that point on, those prep stars’ lives go under the unforgivingly harsh eye of the media microscope. Their mailboxes will fill up with letters and packages from cajoling college recruiters. Every move they make and every word they say will be analyzed with the hope that somewhere they might unwittingly give away a preferred college destination.

Sometimes hype isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On occasion, the work of these recruiting experts helps high school standouts catch the eye of coaches, opening doorways that may not have been possible otherwise. In 2002, for example, a tournament organized by recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons brought a sophomore named DeMarcus Nelson to North Carolina to play a series of basketball games. Nelson’s play impressed Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who extended the sophomore an invitation to play for the Blue Devils after graduation. Days later, Nelson took Krzyzewski’s offer.

The attention has also precipitated extra looks from NBA scouts. High school stars now become NBA lottery picks with surprising regularity—last year, a record eight prep superstars were taken in the first round of the draft, and a high school player has been the No. 1 pick in the draft for two consecutive years now. It comes as no surprise that this NBA youth movement parallels the rise of recruiting websites, which catalog and rank virtually every promising high school player in the country.

All this added pressure on high school players, however, can have damaging consequences. The pressure of the spotlight on some of the nation’s top playmakers, especially at the impressionable age of 17, can become suffocating at times. Highly-touted Duke signee Shaun Livingston, for instance, would sign autographs for hours after games and field innumerable phone calls from reporters hoping to get the inside scoop on his recruitment. During one official visit, Livingston once reportedly received over 30 phone calls in the course of two hours from a North Carolina fan site.

Even worse are those reporters who openly attempt to persuade high school students to select certain institutions or career paths.

Enter Tom Lemming, one of the nation’s most well-known football recruiting analysts. In recent months, Lemming, who writes recruiting rankings for ESPN.com, has come under increased scrutiny for his interview practices. A recent article from Florida State recruiting site Warchant.com suggested that Lemming has discouraged recruits from playing for the Seminoles, most notably with running back Lorenzo Booker.

“He was constantly saying negative things about Florida State, Washington and USC, saying, ‘They lied to their players, that Notre Dame can offer you so much more,’” said Booker, the No. 1 high school player in the nation his senior year. “We knew about the academic side of it, and we knew Coach [Tyrone] Willingham was a standup guy, but he just said that, ‘All the other coaches, especially Florida State coaches, lie to the players all the time, they are never truthful and they are going to move Lorenzo to wide receiver.’”

Similarly, it almost appears as if Lemming is using his influence to sway Duke commitment Greg Paulus. In addition to being one of the nation’s top point guards, Paulus is also one of the nation’s top quarterback prospects—so good, in fact, that Lemming has drawn comparisons between Paulus and quarterback great Joe Montana.

It’s one thing to draw such comparisons—the comparison between Paulus and Montana is a fairly legitimate assessment. It is completely different, however, to call for Paulus to play football, as he did in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle two weeks ago.

“The sky’s the limit for this kid as far as football is concerned,” Lemming said in the article. “It would be a terrible waste of talent if he didn’t at least give it a shot at the next level. It would be a sin.”

Not as sinful as Lemming’s statement, however. As a reporter and recruiting analyst with his level of influence, it is irresponsible to lobby so openly and publicly for a recruit to take any course of action.

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