Controversy swells over offering athletic scholarships to eighth and ninth graders


William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system and co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, called on colleges and the NCAA to end the practice of offering scholarships to students as young as the eighth grade.  “I find the practice appalling, quite frankly,” Kirwan told the USA Today.  “I certainly hope the NCAA will step in and put a stop to it. I certainly will voice my objection to (NCAA President) Myles Brand and others at the NCAA.” Kirwan’s comments come in response to the recent action by University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach Billy Gillispie, who offered a scholarship in the last week to eighth-grader Michael Avery from Lake Sherwood, California and ninth-grader, Vincent Zollo, from Greenfield, Ohio.

As reported by the USA Today, several major college men’s basketball coaches have offered scholarships to eighth and ninth graders in recent years.  Last year, the University of Southern California received commitments from eighth-grader Ryan Boatright of Aurora, Ill., and freshman Dwayne Polee Jr. of Westchester, Calif.  In 2003, ninth grader Taylor King, of Huntington Beach, Calif., committed to UCLA, but eventually attended Duke University.  The USA Today article reported King has since transferred to Villanova.

Parents of both Avery and Zollo defended the decision to accept the scholarship offers.  Avery’s father, Howard, told the USA Today: “He just has to enjoy being a kid. It’s not pressure but motivation. My kid knows if he puts in the work, he’s going to play college ball at the University of Kentucky. Who would turn something like that down?” Robyn Curry, a teacher and the mother of Zollo, stated, “We spent nine hours meeting with Coach Gillispie and the people at Kentucky on Monday. I think it will be a perfect fit for my son. After we left Lexington, I didn’t have any negative thoughts at all. He’s comfortable, and he loved it there.”

University of Kentucky President Lee Todd also supported Gillispie in his decision to offer scholarships. Stated Todd, “You run across these kids who are talented at a young age, and they are going to be recruited by someone, and he (Gillispie) is under the pressure to build a pipeline in his program. I can’t fault Coach trying to build up the pipeline. I don’t think there will be that many cases where that will happen for us or anyone else.”

Notably, verbal commitments are non-binding for both player and coach, and it is often that students change their mind before they sign a written letter of commitment to attend a school. But, with only 13 scholarship opportunities on a college basketball roster, there is little room for mistakes if a player doesn’t live up to expectations in high school.

Steve Mallonee, the NCAA director of membership services for Division I and a liaison to the Division I Basketball Issues Committee, stated that the issue be on the agenda at the next meeting of the issues committee in June. “You could say it’s an ethical thing, but what kind of legislation can you put forward if it’s not a binding thing?” Mallonee says. “Our rules are not even designed to recruit kids of that age. You are not supposed to actively recruit kids until after the 10th grade, because that’s when you can start writing them. You can’t contact until later than that. The only thing you can do is observe. This idea they are offering scholarships (to kids that age), I don’t think that’s healthy, but how to address it is a different issue.”

Added Kirwan: “It brings someone moving from childhood to young adult into the national spotlight. I’m sure this will be discussed on ESPN, and that can’t be a healthy thing for his development. I think that’s another troubling aspect of this.”