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College Coaches Avidly Pursue the Elusive 'Blue Chippers'

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Hundreds of men and women have fanned out across the country during the past few months to stalk and snare the "blue-chipper"--one of the rarer species to be found in the nation.

The hunters spare no expense. They will travel anywhere, anytime. By their own admission, they are fiercely competitive, exceedingly persistent, and desperate to succeed. For them, the fun is not in the hunt, but in the catch.

The "blue-chippers" are highly talented high-school athletes, particularly those who play football and basketball.

Last month, approximately 27,000 of them signed national letters of intent indicating where they planned to begin their college football careers. Next month, nearly 4,000 others will similarly declare where they intend to play basketball next year.

Many of these young athletes dream of achieving prominence as college stars, followed by the fame and fortune associated with "making it in the pros." They either don't know or don't want to admit that only one out of every 20,000 high-school athletes will ever play professional basketball or football. And for the select few who do, the average player's professional career lasts no more than four years.

Few, if any, studies have been conducted to determine what happens to the 19,999 who never catch up with that dream.

At the college level, however, a recent survey conducted by the American College Testing Program did find that almost two-thirds of all collegiate basketball and football players fail to earn a degree during their four years in school. Many of those athletes, according to one critic of the current state of collegiate athletics, "have little more to show for their college careers other than a pocketful of newspaper clippings."

With the increasing emphasis placed upon collegiate sports in recent years and the attendant recruiting pressures on young athletes, three programs have emerged to combat what many consider to be the continuing exploitation of high-school and college athletes.

Athletes For Better Education (afbe), exists to help high-school athletes avoid getting trapped in the collegiate recruiting and academic scandals that have been making front-page news regularly for years. Operation Big Brother and Operation Intercept are intended to locate and punish the people involved in such scandals.

The primary objective of afbe is "to 'demythologize' basketball as the be-all and the end-all for these kids," says Arthur (Chick) Sherrer Jr., a former English teacher and high-school coach who is president of the organization. "We want to teach them how to use their basketball skills toward their own advantage, and not allow basketball to take advantage of them."

The highly talented football and basketball stars are susceptible to the lures of their sports precisely because the young athletes have the potential to make sagging teams into tournament champions. The blue-chippers--like the stocks from which the name is borrowed--are "good investments" for colleges and universities that struggle season after season to field winning teams.

And winning teams have the potential to make alumni, state legislators, and fans happy--and generous. College athletics officials readily admit that money is one of the main reasons for the extraordinary amounts of time and effort that are spent wooing talented high-school students to their campuses and their athletic squads.

Winning Team

A strong recruiting year, they say, can lead to a winning team. A winning team promotes a loyal and financially supportive alumni, increases gate receipts at sporting events, and results in thousands of dollars in payment for national television exposure.

So some college coaches--particularly those engaged in what the American Council on Education (ace) in a 1980 study of collegiate athletics called "The Money Game"--will go to almost any lengths to recruit outstanding high-school athletes.

According to Mr. Sherrer, the afbe program helps high-school athletes avoid getting caught up in that game. "We tell the kids that there are three breeds of recruiters--the piranha, the barracuda, and the great white," he says. "Some of them will take a nibble, and some will swallow you whole. But all of them are going to want a piece."

"College recruiters are veterans at this game, they know how to play on the navete of high-school athletes who don't know how to say 'no' to anybody," says S. David Berst, director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's (ncaa) enforcement division and overseer of Operation Intercept and Operation Big Brother. "Traditionally, the athletes have listened to older people and think that they can trust them."

But the coaches have their own interests, he says, and some of them are interested in the athlete not necessarily as a human being, but as a commodity. "To them the important factors are speed, how fast the athlete can run, or how high he can jump."

'Devastating' Effect

Exposure to improper or unethical recruiting can have a "devastating" effect on young athletes and the way that they view the world, adds Joe Paterno, head football coach at Pennsylvania State University and a member of the ncaa's recruiting committee.

"If a young man is exposed to people breaking the rules, he's bound to be affected adversely," Mr. Paterno says. "It's the old 'Don't be a sucker' syndrome. They've been surrounded by coaches who have always talked about idealistic goals, about hard work, pulling together as a team. But then when a coach offers them gifts or comes up with something else that's unethical, well, that just makes these kids cynical.''

Operation Intercept, according to Mr. Berst, is a program in which ncaa officials telephone the nation's top 100 high-school athletic prospects around the first of February and interview them about their recruiting experiences in hopes of identifying a pattern of improper recruiting by certain college teams.

Operation Big Brother, he says, is a more elaborate project, established two years ago to carefully monitor the recruitment of America's top 32 high-school football and basketball prospects.

According to Mr. Berst, Operation Big Brother has a twofold purpose: to counsel young and impressionable high-school athletes about the ways of the "recruiting game," and to use information generated from interviews with them to determine which schools are violating ncaa recruiting regulations.

Last summer, eight ncaa field investigators each monitored four of the top high-school football and basketball players in the nation, two from each sport, according to Mr. Berst.

"We've stayed in contact with the young men since then, offering any assistance or advice that they might need or want," he says. "The investigators, by and large, are former athletes or have been involved in either coaching or athletic administration. They're people who know what's happening because most had been recruited, or have recruited someone, at one time or another."

Knowledge Enhanced

"Our knowledge of recruiting improprieties has definitely been enhanced as a result of the programs," Mr. Berst says. "One high-school recruit may not want to talk about improprieties involving a school because he may have chosen to attend it, but the next one who we talk to will."

The ncaa projects have their weaknesses, however, according to some observers. Ewald B. Nyquist, vice-president for academic development at Pace University's Pleasantville-Briarcliff campus in New York and a member of the ace study group on collegiate athletics, says that ncaa officials "mean business and are working as hard as they can to prevent violations, but they do not have the resources and the support necessary to do much more." Mr. Nyquist explains that ncaa recruiting rules are set by member organization and their representatives--the college coaches and athletic directors who are occasionally accused of violations themselves.

"In one sense, the ncaa is very much like an economic cartel whose members dictate policy," he says. "A few years ago, someone in the organization proposed raising the academic standards that a student-athlete would have to meet in order to be eligible to participate in sports. You wouldn't believe the fuss that was raised over that issue."

He adds that the same probably holds true for ncaa recruiting rules. "The ncaa people have to work under the constraints placed on them by the coaches and the schools. I guess you could call these programs their 'prevent defense,' but if you don't have support, you aren't going to get too far."

Prevention, on the other hand, is the essence of the afbe program, according to Mr. Sherrer. "The entire point of this program is to convince the kids to re-prioritize their values before they can get into trouble," he says.

The process begins each summer at afbe-sponsored, 12-day basketball clinics for the top 100 high-school players in the Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles areas. The camp participants, who are entering high-school seniors, are typically poor, black or Hispanic, and chron-ically behind in school, according to Mr. Sherrer.

Volunteer Teachers

At the camps, he continues, the athletes will spend more time in the classroom than they will on a basketball court. The first four hours of their 10-hour days will be devoted to instruction in the basic skills by area teachers volunteering their time.

"For many of these fellows, this marks the first time that they have done anything for four straight hours other than sleep, play basketball, or chase girls," Mr. Sherrer says.

For an additional three hours, Mr. Sherrer and his associates will help their pupils master "basic college-survival skills," such as learning how to use a library, how to write a term paper, and how to apply for financial aid. The instructional workouts held at the summer camps are supplemented by tutorial and counseling sessions held once each month on Saturdays during the regular school year.

The remaining three hours of the camp day are spent on the basketball courts, where the players are treated to a heavy dose of "reality therapy," Mr. Sherrer says.

"When the kids come in, they think that they are the best thing that ever appeared on a basketball court," he explains. "But for two weeks they have the opportunity to go one-one-one against each other, and afterwards we rank them on their ability to play."

Players who wind up with the lowest rankings are then offered a handbook titled "The Plan B Blueprint," a how-to manual on admissions-test taking, applying for financial aid, and general college-application procedures, Mr. Sherrer continues.

"Plan A is for the bona fide superstar, the guy who is destined to be recruited and win a scholarship at a large university," he says. "Plan B is for the majority of these fellows. We tell them that they have the talent to play college ball somewhere, but that they had better start thinking about what they want to do with the rest of their lives."

Program Successful

The sports camp and year-round tutoring program appear to be working. afbe "graduated" its first class of 108 participants in 1978, and 101 of them were still in college at the end of their sophomore years. At last count, according to the organization, 95 of the original 108 were still in school. Nationally, one out of every two students entering college fails to earn a degree after four years in school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"A lot of people ask me what my ultimate goal is for this program, and usually they're surprised when I tell them that I can't wait to close the books on it," Mr. Sherrer says. "There is only one reason why we are doing this, and that's because we see a need going unfilled. I think it would be great if we didn't need something like this at all."

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